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Decision-Making Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

907: Building Unwavering Confidence with Paul Epstein

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Paul Epstein reveals master keys to building confidence and making better decisions faster.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The fundamental key to feeling more confident every day
  2. How to improve your decision outcomes in just two minutes
  3. The head-heart-hands equation for making better decisions faster

About Paul

PAUL EPSTEIN is a former high-level executive for multiple NFL and NBA teams and the bestselling author of The Power of Playing Offense.

In 2022, he was named one of SUCCESS magazine’s top thought leaders who get results and his work has been featured on ESPN, NBC, Fox Business, and in USA Today.

In fifteen years as a leader in the world of pro sports, Paul helped take NBA teams from the bottom of the league in revenue to the top two, broke every premium sales revenue metric in Super Bowl history, opened a billion-dollar stadium, and founded the San Francisco 49ers Talent Academy.

As an award-winning keynote speaker, Paul’s impact continues offstage, providing leadership development and culture transformation programs for companies and teams including Amazon, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, NASA, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Dallas Cowboys.

He’s also the founder of the Win Monday Community and host of the Win Monday podcast, where he interviews high-profile guests who reveal their secrets of confidence and work-life mastery.

Resources Mentioned

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Paul Epstein Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Paul, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Paul Epstein
Yeah, Pete, fired up to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. I’m excited to get into some of the wisdom of your book, Better Decisions Faster: Unshakable Confidence When You Need It Most. But, first, I think we need to hear a fun story involving you and a famous athlete. How would you kick us off?

Paul Epstein
Ah, me and a famous athlete. Actually, you know what, let me give this a little spin, but if you want to talk athlete, let’s keep it in the NFL. Let’s go to one of the more powerful and influential people in the entire sports business, none other than the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. So, can I dive down this story of me and Roger?

Pete Mockaitis
Take it away.

Paul Epstein
Okay, good. All right. So, I’m in the NFL League office, 345 Park Ave. I’m in New York, running a national sales campaign for Super Bowl 48, which was over a handful of years ago, and it was a mega, mega Super Bowl. It was the biggest ever because it was the first time that it was in New York. So, you had these massive expectations, massive pressures, massive everything, and my boss, who’s the head of revenue for the NFL, he always served as kind of the buffer. It’s like NFL Commission, Roger’s down the hall, and Paul, “I got this.”

So, whenever Roger was close, my boss’ name is Brian, he now runs business for the LA Olympics, wonderful, wonderful guy, but he always kind of serves as that buffer. So, anyways, one day Brian is not around, he’s in a meeting. Commish walks down the hall, and he sees this pinboard that has all of the inventory for the Super Bowl mapped out, and there’s three colors of pins – green, yellow, and red. So, green is sold, yellow is in conversation with a prospect, and red is no action.

Well, this is really early in the campaign, we’re in like month two out of ten, so let’s just say the board had a lot of red pins. So, Commish comes over, and he says, “Tell me about the board.” And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, where the hell is Brian when I need him?” But needless to say, it was just me and the Commish. And I said, “All right. Roger, yes, green is sold, yellow is in conversations,” so far so true, and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, I can’t practically reveal what the red is.”

I’m like, “Red is red hot prospect.” And he made eye contact, and he says, “Well, looks like we’ve got a pretty hot market,” and went off. And so, my career was saved. Thankfully, I’m around to tell this story with a smile on my face, but you want to talk about thinking on your feet in a high-stakes situation. You talk about unshakeable confidence when you need it most, well, let’s just say I wish I had a book like Better Decisions Faster before that moment because I was just kind of winging it on impulse, but there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is it your perception that had you say, “Oh, well, Roger, those are the seats that are unsold, and no action have yet been taken,” that he would lose it?

Paul Epstein
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Paul Epstein
Yeah, look, NFL, it’s a high-pressure, people get what they want. There’s no mistake that it’s one of the more powerful businesses in the world, and I loved every moment of it, but, yeah, I’m just happy that I didn’t quite have to reveal what the reds truly were.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so let’s talk about Better Decisions Faster. Any particularly surprising or counterintuitive   discoveries you made about decision-making and confidence when researching and putting this together?

Paul Epstein
Yeah, it was massive. Well, there’s a huge statistic that just blew me away. To this day, it’s almost hard for me to even fathom, even though I fact-checked it and we do the research on the research on the research. You really make sure that everything checks out, and here is the stat. The average adult makes 35,000 decisions in a day. So, think about that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve heard something like that.

Paul Epstein
If you’re listening to this right now, 35,000 decisions, which is absolutely, it’s part mind-blowing, it’s part mind-numbing, I don’t even know which one it is, but that’s a lot. And so, of course, I think a lot of them are going to be on autopilot – turn left in the driveway, brush your teeth – but then there’s those critical few that can really make or break quality of life, quality of business, quality of career, quality of health, quality of relationships.

So, I wrote the book more for those. I call them MVDs, so the sports metaphor. MVP is the most valuable player. I wrote it for our most valuable decisions but still, to know that we have the expectation and the weight of 35,000 of anything in a day, I don’t know about you, but that kind of scared the crap out of me the first time I heard it. And, thankfully, I figured, “Hey, might as well write a playbook on how we can navigate and conquer those decisions with more confidence.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And, Paul, I love that you were shaken and wanted to triple-check what is up with this huge number. So, let’s get your hot take. So, if we’re awake for, like, a thousand-ish minutes in a day, and there’s 35,000 decisions, we’re talking about 35 decisions a minute, or a decision every one or two seconds. So, I’m imagining the weight or gravity of most of these decisions might be along the lines of, “Should I have another sip of water?”

Paul Epstein
Oh, no, you’re so right.

Pete Mockaitis
“And I will.”

Paul Epstein
Like, “Should I look this person in the eye?” “Oh, hey, I got to scratch the itch.” Like, whatever it is. Yeah, most of them are kind of in this autopilot inconsequential, but, still, that’s kind of a crazy thing. It’s almost like taking a breath. Is that a decision? Like, you think about kind of those moment-to-moment things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and you’re right. That would be fun just because I am similarly curious in such a way. I guess that there are some things that, like taking a breath, I think that’s right on the border because it can be automatic or not, versus your heart beating, it just does, decided. Heart beat now or heart beat faster or slower.

Well, before we get into the particulars of how we make these most valuable decisions most excellently, could you share with us a story of someone who started kind of unconfident and indecisive, and then did some things to make the leap, the transformation to confident and decisive?

Paul Epstein
Yeah, so part of this is really, I’ll look in the mirror when I tell you this story. This was what turns out to be this Jerry Maguire leap from sports, and I’ll tell you that I had a coaching conversation along the way that, fundamentally, changed my life. Her name is Sue Ann, and I’ll share this story of Sue Ann in a second, but Sue Ann gave me this gift of unshakeable confidence when I needed it most.

Because before that, and maybe this resonates with everyone listening in, my life, I could describe in two chapters: pre-confidence and post-confidence. And by pre-confidence, I don’t mean that I didn’t have confidence but it was inconsistent at best. I had moments where I did show up with unshakeable confidence, but I had others where I played pretty small.

And that was a byproduct of stress, or anxiety, or maybe I wasn’t happy or fulfilled, or whatever the case was, but it was just this weight of decision fatigue, decision overwhelm, and then you get paralyzed, and then you make the worst decision of them all, which is indecision. So, I suffered just like the majority of us. I think we all suffer from those things.

Now, a decade later, you write a playbook on it, and that’s kind of the happy ending of this story, and it’s going to be a lifelong journey. But I’ll tell you the story where prior, and I think this connects with a lot of folks out there, the way that we’re raised, and I don’t just mean by parents, I mean more in society, especially here in the US, it’s so success-driven, it’s so goals and metrics and outcomes, and we chase these things, and, “Where did you go to school?” and “What’s the first company you worked for?” and “What does the resume look like?” “What does your LinkedIn profile look like?” and it’s all this external stuff.

And when you’re in the NFL and NBA, and you’re achieving all these things, and you’re supposedly getting all the things that matter in life, but then you don’t always feel like you’re winning on the inside. So, you’re winning on the outside but not winning on the inside. And what’s that gap about? And I would’ve told you that my entire career, I was going to hang out in the sports industry because it was a total dream come true. It was a kid in the candy store type of experience.

But then when I realized that you consistently reach these peaks, and these summits, and these places that are supposed to feel so amazing, and sometimes they do, but then it expires really quick. Like, within a day or two you kind of have this crash because I think there’s this reality check of, “Is this it?” Like, I spent months or years or the better part of the decade to get to this summit and this peak, and then, poof, it’s gone in like a day or two.

And that’s where I found myself, I’m heading up revenue for the San Francisco 49ers, and I go to this retreat where I started to tap into my why, and my values, a lot of personal discovery work. I started to figure out who I am. But then I was this crazy guy in the retreat that wasn’t happy with leaving those things as a distant north star. So, I got obsessed with, “How do I apply them on Monday morning? How do I connect these things that feel like a distant north star, like your why and values? How do I connect them to my decisions, to my actions, to the way I show up?”

And that process is what leads me to make big decisions, like doing things I said I would never do, “I’m never going to go back to school.” Well, growth mindset, growth is one of my core values, so I go back to school. I meet this wonderful woman named Sue Ann, my executive coach, first time I ever had an executive coach. And, Pete, what was really cool about this is this was the first time in my entire life, professionally speaking, that I felt comfortable going there, meaning, like, 100 out of 100, raw truth, vulnerability, authenticity.

Because before Sue Ann, I had mentors in the sports industry. The problem was they probably knew my boss better than they knew me. So, put yourself in this scenario if you’re listening in here. Have you ever been asked, “How’s it going? How’s it going?” and your default answer is, “Great. Great” even if you’re not great?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Paul Epstein
And I think a lot of us have been there where you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, like it’s totally great.” And you say that because you don’t want to reveal if you’re 60% good, you don’t want to talk about the 40%, or you don’t know how this person is going to react, you don’t know if a negative domino follows. So, that was my mindset for a lot of my career as I’m growing and climbing and succeeding and winning on the outside. But then I talked to Sue Ann, and this was the conversation that changed my life.

She said, “Paul, I know what you do. You’re head of sales for an NFL team. What do you love about it? What do you hate about it? And what do you tolerate?” So, love, hate, tolerate. Great questions for all of us to evaluate – love, hate, tolerate. And I answered all three, and then she said, “Go deeper on the love bucket.” I’m like, “Okay, Sue Ann. Well, I love the people side of business, I love the culture side, I love being a coach just like you.”

And she said, “Awesome. On a good day, what percentage of your time do you do that?” So, now I’m slouching down in my chair, kind of the embarrassed at the answers, so I plopped it up a little bit. I said, “Sue Ann, 20%.” The truth is probably five or ten, but I’m like, “Sue Ann, 20%.” “All right. Paul, I wave a wand, you become your boss tomorrow. Does that number 20% go up, down, or sideways?”

And I thought about my boss, they were almost all strategy and nothing coaching people, so I said, “You know, Sue Ann, it’d probably go down.” And this was it, Pete. This was the question she asked, “So, what are you after?” Such a simple question but it has such profound meaning because I hadn’t asked myself that question in a very long time. I was just busy climbing, and winning, and succeeding what I thought was growing, but I forgot what I was after. And then she made me realize I don’t even want what’s next. I’m climbing this ladder, and I don’t even want what’s next.

So, to put this all together, when you want to talk about decision-making, when you want to talk about playing from a place of confidence, here’s why she gave me the gift of confidence, here’s how it went down. She cemented this belief that if I can connect my values to my decisions and actions, then I will become the most confident version of myself, beaming with strength and authenticity and purpose. So, the next decision I made after I talked to her, I asked myself, “What’s my strongest core value?” And its impact.

And I define impact as making a difference and leaving people in places better than I found them. That’s it. So, I then go back to the drawing board, and I asked myself, “Can I create more impact inside of the walls of the sports industry or beyond the walls?” And that, Pete, was the question that leads to the moment, and the aha, and eventual transformation, and eventual Jerry Macguire leap. That’s the moment I knew I was going to leave sports after 15 years of thinking that everything was perfect, and Sue Ann shining a light on this gap that I had, why I was showing up as a work Paul and a personal Paul.

And, really, you want to talk about making better decisions faster and being confident, I think that it is simply the consistency by which we act on our values, and that’s the backstory of how I came upon that transformation. And ever since then, I’ve been coaching others, and I implement it in my speaking, in my training, in my consulting, all of that, but that’s how decision-making became my competitive advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes a lot of sense in terms of when you’re connected with the values, and those are guiding your decisions, you’re not wishy-washy waffly, like, “Hey, sorry to bother you. I hope this isn’t too inconvenient but I was…” as opposed to, like, “Yeah, this is just sort of how it is, and I believe that in my inner core that this is what is optimal, what needs to happen, what is good, proper, right, and just. And, thus, I’m going to feel like I can go forth and march on that.”

So, Paul, I’m imagining the hard part is getting that crystal clarity on “What are your values? And how can those connect to the decision or action that’s right in front of you in the next moment, the next hour?” So, any pro tips on how you illuminate these things?

Paul Epstein
Yup. So, I’ve got an old-school and a new-school way, and I’ll give you the fast pass because here we are in a podcast, so I want to give folks something they can do immediately. So, I’m talking to everybody out there. To find a value, the old-school way is, hey, you bring in a guy like me, and you go through some life-reflection exercises, and we unpack the peaks and the valleys, and we look for themes. And then those themes become your values. That takes time and energy and process. Let me give you the fast-pass way, and this works ten out of ten times. It’s just not as deep of a process.

You can, literally, Google top core values personally. And if you look at a list of 50 or 100, ask yourself, “Which one jumps off the page? Which one resonates?” I love this perspective. The Latin definition of inspire, which your value should inspire you, the Latin definition of inspire is to breathe life into. When you look at a list of 20, 50, 100 words, which one breathes life into you? And then just pick that value.

And then here’s the process that you do on the backend. So, now let’s say you lock in. Like, my core five: growth, belief, impact, courage, authenticity. Those are my five. Everyone has their own. There’s no better/worse, there’s no right/wrong. It’s just you do you. But here’s where we go. There’s a journaling exercise that I introduce to all of my coaching clients, and it works ten out of ten times if you do the work. And here is the process.

Now that you picked your value, once a week, this takes two minutes, so busyness cannot be an excuse, we all have two minutes in a week. We sit down, and we say, “For the week ahead, I will live my value of blank by blank.” The first blank is the value you chose. The second blank is an action, a single action that you connect to that value. So, I’ll give you two examples.

Let’s say that you choose the value of joy. Awesome. Okay. So, sit down, you journal, “For the week ahead, I will live my value of joy by cooking my favorite meal.” Cool. Super simple, super accessible, very easy, like joy. Hey, for me, I’m cooking bacon, I’m a happy camper. All good. That would be me. What is your favorite meal that brings you joy? That’s your one action.

Okay, let’s pivot. Instead of joy, what if your core value is courage? So, we’re raising the stakes. We’re getting a little feistier here. All right, journal, “For the week ahead, I will live my value of courage by having that challenging conversation that I’ve been putting off.” You’re not having that conversation because Paul said. You’re having that conversation because courage is a core value. So, those are just two quick-hit examples.

And then the last piece that I’ll say is, if that was your first journaling sit down, the reason why this works, and the reason why New Year’s resolutions don’t is a couple of things that are pitfalls that I’m about to coach through. So, the reason New Year’s resolutions don’t work, a couple things. One is we lack process and system. So, if we had a journaling exercise, or some sort of process and system, we would be much better at achieving our New Year’s resolutions.

The other reason why a lot of New Year’s resolutions, for myself included, don’t work is because we don’t stick with them long enough. We think we’re going to do something once or twice, and we’re like, “Oh, voila.” That’s just not how we’re wired. So, if you study habit formation, what the average research will tell you is that habit formation takes between three and four weeks. So, if you have a consistent process or system, and you do it for, in this case, I’m going to advise, do it for four weeks so you pass the threshold of habit formation, so you know where I’m going with this.

Do this journaling exercise four consecutive weeks. Two minutes a week, less than 10 minutes in a month, you can develop muscle memory, and you can internalize for four journaling sit-downs, do joy. For four journaling sit-downs, do courage. Do whatever your core value is. And here’s the beauty, and I want to share a gift with everyone listening in as well, if you were to go to my website, PaulEpsteinSpeaks.com, and take the confidence quiz, which, in less than five minutes, it gives you a confidence score of one to 100.

In the resource that you’ll be emailed after, I have a template for this values journal, so it’s just a free gift from me to everybody listening in because I believe, like this is something I implement with pro athletes, with Olympians, with high-growth founders, with Fortune 100 CEOs. It works ten out of ten times for those that do it for four consecutive weeks. So, that’s the process.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very cool. And I dug how, when you mentioned impact, you had a particular Paul-definition of it, “This is what I mean by impact.” Likewise, could you give us some examples of courage or joy? And do you recommend that in the process of you find the value that breathes life into you, and then you expand upon it with some specific definitional verbiage?

Paul Epstein
Yeah, I love where you’re bringing this, Pete. So, when I was introduced to this back in 2016 when I had that life-changing retreat, the process that was shared with me, I did not have that journaling exercise as teed up as the way I just described it. But what the facilitator did tell me to do, and I followed it to a tee, they said, “Screw what the Webster Dictionary thinks. What’s your definition of your core values?”

And so, I was like, “Okay, cool. Like, that’s an interesting exercise. Let me totally go down this rabbit hole.” So, I’ll give you my five, and I’ll give you my five quick definitions, this is all muscle memory at this point. So, growth was my first value. Growth is the mindset that I’ll attack each day with. That’s it. That’s Paul’s definition.

Then I had courage. You mentioned courage a few moments ago. Courage is standing tallest when fear and risks are highest. That’s my definition. I already talked about impact. Making a difference. Leaving people in places better than you found them. Let’s go authenticity. This was an interesting one. Never sell out because I have and it sucked, and I’ll never do it again.

So, you could see how you can kind of dance with these. I don’t really care what the dictionary says. I hit a rock-bottom moment professionally a year or two before this when I went against my authenticity, and it served the company well but it didn’t serve me well, and my heart and all of these things. So, that pain point turned out to trigger my definition of one of my core values.

So, those are just some quick hits on how you can look at a word, and you should intentionally not look up what Google says, or what Webster says. You shouldn’t do it. What does it mean to you? Because if you struggle to find a unique definition, then it might not be a core value.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you talk about sort of the emotional resonance, it breathes life into, I imagine that can have different subtleties or flavors or nuances. Sometimes the ‘breathe life into’ feels like, “Yes, that’s awesome.” And other times it’s like, “Ahh, yes,” there’s a deep peace associated with it. And so, can you give us a few of the different styles of being inspired by the stuff?

Paul Epstein
Yeah, I love this so much. Yeah, let me pick on one of my core values, which is courage. And this is not going to be the, “Rah, take the hill and let’s go conquer.” Like, a lot of people would think of courage or bravery as this very much like we’re going to battle. And, for me, it’s not about that at all. I actually, emotionally, I tie it back to one of the worst days of my life, which is I lost my hero, my dad, at 19 years old, and I’m an only child.

And when I went home after I got that phone call that nobody wants to get, and I saw my mom, and she’s crying on the floor, and as we hugged, and I still feel the tears on my shoulder, and I saw how she showed up that day as a parent, as a concealer, as a consoler, I should say, as a healer, then as a planner, and then all these things, she breathed courage into me, and it never left.

I am convinced that courage would not be a core value had I not been through that horrible experience, had I not lost my hero, had I not seen how my parent grew into a partner, how my mom turned into a best friend. Like, it was this pain, this tragedy, that really helped color it for me. So, yeah, Pete, I agree, man. I don’t think of inspire purely as the blue skies.

One of my buddies, he has a great way of thinking about the pain that you’ve experienced in life can be tied to your purpose once you heal. So, pain can tie to purpose once you heal, and I think that quick story I just shared is an example of that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you. I also lost my father as a teenager, and, yeah, it is tough and things sink in in that context, for sure. Well, thank you. I appreciate the depth and the heart here when talking about values and making it real. So, now, I guess I want to shift gears a little bit in terms of, let’s say you’ve done a lot of that good, reflective, soul-searching work, whether you’re Googling a list of values, and journaling, or going full bore with some assessments and some consultant coaches.

Now, I’m curious about in the heat of the moment when you’re feeling nervous, some pressure right then and there, how do you recommend we go about keeping cool and finding that unshakeable confidence right in those moments?

Paul Epstein
This is, literally, the entire playbook and the application that’s inside of the covers of Better Decisions Faster. So, I’ll give you the 60-second masterclass here. How we make better decisions faster, the application, I call it the head-heart-hands equation. So, the equation is head plus heart equals hands. To define each: head is your mindset, heart is your authenticity, and hands are action.

So, with head plus heart equals hands, another way to think about this is when deciding whether to use your hands, whether to take action, there’s two checkpoints: head and heart. The questions are, head. “Do I think it’s a good idea?” Heart. “Do I feel it’s a good idea?” And just like when you and I, when we’re driving up to an intersection, we know exactly what to do. Green is go, red is stop, yellow is assess. And that’s exactly how the head-heart-hands equation works.

So, when your head and your heart are both on board, it is a green freaking light. Ten out of ten times, go. Take action. Your head and your heart are ignited toward that action. Now, when there’s no head and no heart, that’s a red light. And so, we don’t want to run red lights. We now have the awareness and the consciousness to not run them. No head, no heart. When one of the two, either head or heart, is on board, that’s a yellow light.

So, if you ask me in simple terms, why write a book like Better Decisions Faster? Why apply the head-heart-hands equation? It’s because when the fear, and the stress, and the anxiety, and the pressures of day-to-day life, which are real, when they strike, we need a faster way to understand where we are with that decision in that moment.

So, while green, yellow, and red, it doesn’t get you to the finish line, the outcome, after the action within seconds but the equation does. So, now as I’m sometimes feeling stuck, or lost, or paralyzed at this fork in the road, I can now apply the head-heart-hands equation, and, boom, like the snap of fingers, I do a head check, I do a heart check, and almost instantly, I know, “Is this is a green? Is it a yellow? Is it a red?”

So, I write a book to attract more greens into our life. I write the book to raise awareness to stop running reds. And I write the book because yellow is the messy middle, and we need to have a playbook for how to navigate and conquer that messy middle. That’s Better Decisions Faster.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. That’s cool in terms of so we can eliminate a lot of second guessing in terms of the clear reds, clear greens. Like, head yes, heart yes, like, “Hey, that seems like a good idea, a good price. Heart, yeah, I really freaking want it, so, all right, let’s get it. There we go. I want to buy that thing,” or, “I want to take that course or do whatever.”

So, yeah, yellow is, indeed, the messy middle because I think a lot of times, it’s like, “Well, that sort of seems like a good idea but I’m not really sure. I’ve never done anything like this.” Heart. “I’m pretty excited about it but also kind of worried, like, this might turn out really bad.” So, when we’re in that messy middle, what do we do next?

Paul Epstein
It’s so funny, Pete. As soon as you started describing, in this case, greens and reds, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I hope he goes to the yellow,” because that really is the meat of the conversation. Now, that everybody heard this, hey, head and heart on board, greens. No head, no heart, reds. You don’t need a book for that. Like, that’s just a matter of being aware and doing the head check and heart check, and you’re good to go. Like, you can do the green and red thing.

Here’s the interesting part about yellows. Not all yellows are created equal. I actually have a very different recommendation for when only the head is on board versus when only the heart is on board, and I actually believe that one of the two is more deadly than a red, so let’s unpack that. Pete, I’ll ask you this question. This is a good segue into it. If I asked you, Pete, which one is more likely to be able to change over the weeks, over the months, over the years? Do you think your head can change or your heart changes?

Pete Mockaitis
I think the head changes faster, easier. It’s like, “Oh, here’s a new fact I didn’t know. Cool.”

Paul Epstein
Yup, exactly. Yeah, and I think most people would agree and subscribe to that. So, you’re not going to wake up with a new heart tomorrow. Your heart is probably not going to change over the weeks, months, maybe years. But even then, there’s just no guarantee, versus a head block, sometimes there’s a self-limiting belief that we need to untangle, sometimes it’s coached, sometimes it’s our partner, sometimes it’s a therapy, sometimes it’s like…whatever it is, there’s ways to untangle pollution in our mindset. No doubt about it. Like, I am a firm, firm believer in that.

So, if we’re not going to wake up with a new heart, the bad yellow, the hard yellow, the one that can be more deadly than red is when only our head is on board because our heart is never going to join for the party. So, that’s a yellow light that’s never going to be a green. Think about that. A yellow that’s never going to be a green.

At least with a red, it’s done. You decide to stop doing it or not do it, but this bad yellow, it lingers. And so, a quick example, and this could apply to a relationship as well. I’ll use a professional example right now, but this applies to any person. All right, work context. I used to lead really big sales enterprises and sales teams. And the person that often was the top performer or top producer, so they sold a lot of widgets.

Your head, of course, loves the production, loves the performance. It made you look good to your boss. It helped you achieve your goals. So, your head said, “Keep them.” But let’s say they were a pain in the you-know-what, bad in the locker room, sometimes toxic, so your head might’ve said, “Keep them,” but your heart knew that they weren’t a keeper. Think about all these people that we might be surrounded by, that we have a head reason for them to stick around, but our heart knows that they’re not a long-term play.

And so, if you think about it from that lens, you’re like, “Man, now, all of a sudden, as a sales leader, my culture, three, four years here, it’s all wonky and screwed up. And now I’ve got engagement problems, and, oh, I’m losing some of my better people. So, now I’ve got retention problems. And maybe the marketplace heard a little bit about my culture, so I’ve got recruiting problems. I don’t have an engagement or recruiting or a retention problem. I had a yellow light problem. I hung onto the wrong yellow lights.” And that yellow light can be more deadly than a red.

So, my advice there, as difficult as it is, if your heart is never going to join for the party, short term, sure, you could survive a couple of these bad yellows, but, long term, you’re going to bleed out. So, the head-heart-hands equation gets you to quickly identify, like, “Dang, this is not a long-term play. Yeah, I need the paycheck but this job is soul-sucking to me.” That would be another example. I’m not telling you to bounce tomorrow. We have families. Be responsible. But if you know that’s never going to be a green, then we’ve got to make some decisions here.

And that decision, you might not pull a job trigger for 12 more months, but are you doing the work, nights and weekends? Are you doing the research? Are you doing the informational coffee meetings? Are you taking those positive steps to create potential future green lights because this yellow is never going to be a green?

And in the flip, and I won’t be as long with this one, the flip is a beautiful yellow. When your heart is on board because it’s so rare that your heart is a, “Hell, yes” for something, that yellow, you want to stay in the fight. You want to untangle whatever cobwebs or pollution you got from the neck up because, I’m telling you right now, there are so few opportunities in life that your heart is a “Hell, yes” so we don’t want to screw those up. We don’t want to waste those.

We got to figure out how to potentially transform that good yellow of the heart being on board, and if our head can eventually join for the party, that yellow to green transformation is as big of a payoff as you could ever imagine.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful and thought-provoking. Thank you. It’s really juicy. My thoughts are jumping all over in so many places.

Paul Epstein
Yeah, yellow is juicy, my friend. Yellow is very juicy.

Pete Mockaitis
I think sometimes, call it intuition, but you know your head or your heart isn’t on board, or is on board, but you don’t even know why. To what extent is that important? And how do we solve for that?

Paul Epstein
So, this is the classic gut or impulse, which, by the way, off-camera, what I’m asked all the time by a lot of folks is, “Okay, Paul, cool. I love this. All right, head, heart, hands, fully understand it. I’m going to apply it. Where does the gut fall into this?” Like, I get asked that all the time, and it’s a great question. So, my piece here is when you think about the origin of your gut, the origin of your impulse, that’s kind of you without much reaction time, just saying, “This is naturally how I’m feeling. Like, my gut feel.”

You often hear that, “My gut feel.” Okay, head is a thinking, heart is a feel game, hands are a do game. And so, while they’re not exactly alike, if I had to connect the dots, your gut and your impulse is closest to your heart.

Pete Mockaitis
True.

Paul Epstein
So, a big part of me writing Better Decisions Faster and being around these 12 green lights, which are 12 values, which I shared earlier, when we have our values in action, those are when we’re most confident. And the more confidence we have, then we can make better decisions faster. This is all one connected conversation but I share all these with you because I think we live in a world where we go, go, go, and we do, do, do. I don’t really need to convince folks to think more or to do more.

Now, are we thinking in the right way? That’s a fair conversation. Are we doing all the right things? That’s a fair conversation. But we think so much and we do so much. I think the gap in the world is the heart. And to no fault of anybody’s, I just think it’s so complex, and fast-paced, and up-tempo, and the pressure, and the stress, and the anxiety, sometimes we’re not checking in with our heart.

But when we do, and that’s the beauty of this head-plus-heart-equals-hands equation, Pete, because, like, let me just ask you, Pete, a quick question. If you had to choose a side, are you hardwired, as your default setting, more logic or emotion?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny that you asked. We’ll say more logic, although it’s close.

Paul Epstein
Okay, cool. Yeah, and, again, I don’t care if it’s a 51/49 but the only answer you cannot give is 50/50. So, let’s say you were to lean towards the logic. I’m quite the opposite, so I am hardwired to just be emotional. And so, here’s the beauty. It’s not head or heart equals hands. It’s not head minus heart. It’s head plus heart.

So, what that tells me is if Pete is on one side, if he leans logic, and if Paul leans emotion, well, this equation is going to force Pete to check in with his emotion. This equation is going to force Paul to check in with his logic. It’s head plus heart. So, it un-exposes our blind spots. I might not always do the head check, that’s just not how I’m always wired but now this process forces me to.

And, on the flipside, Pete, whether you’re a 51/49, or whether you’re a 90/10 on the logic side, either way it works. Now you’re going to have to do the heart check, and you’re going to have to make sure that, emotionally, you’re feeling it as well. So, that’s the beauty. It can take two opposite folks that are wired in very different ways, and it takes us through the same funnel, the same process. That’s why I’m such a massive believer in it because it’s not about how you’re wired. It is literally about getting to the best decision possible in a faster amount of time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Thanks, Paul. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Paul Epstein
No, no, we’re good to go, man.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Paul Epstein
Based on what changed my life, from Mark Twain, “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Paul Epstein
Yeah, here’s one. This is a real-life example from one of my first sports jobs. It was a survey. I think this is very, very applicable for a lot of us. So, the question was, “One day, do you want to be the team president?” There were two sample sizes. Two groups of folks. One was frontlines and entry-level workers, the next was vice presidents.

And here’s what the study showed. Practically, 100% of entry-level folks wanted to be the team president. Of course, right, first job in sports. Of course, I want to be at the top.

The number was drastically different for the vice presidents. It dipped just below 50%. So, think about that. When you’re just starting, 100% want to get to the top of the mountain of an org chart. But 50%, once you’ve climbed five rungs up the ladder, and now you understand what it means to be at the top.

And I just think it’s a beautiful insight that, over time, different things matter, and you evolve, and you change, and you start to appreciate not just winning the outside game but also what’s the inside game that makes you happy and fulfilled, and what’s the lifestyle you want to build and have. And so, I think that’s a really cool survey that the meaning of that survey has carried my spirit ever since.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Paul Epstein
Well, aside from The Power of Playing Offense and Better Decisions Faster, of course, I will tell you, man, there are so many, there are so many, but I’ll tell you the book that’s made the most impactful…that’s had the most impact on my life recently, Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I read it last December, I started to apply it immediately, and by any measure or metric that is important to me, by mid-April, I had already surpassed all the things I was measuring from the year before, and it’s because I truly locked in on what’s essential. And I have Greg McKeown to thank for that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Paul Epstein
A microphone. But a microphone as a metaphor. I happen to use it physically as a speaker. I believe that everybody in the world deserves to have a voice. So, when I see a microphone, or speak into a microphone, I believe that everybody should feel like they deserve a seat at the table with a microphone.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Paul Epstein
Fill my life with green lights. No joke, the head-heart-hands equation has fundamentally changed my life. I feel privileged and honored and humbled to be able to share it with the world. But when you get your head and your heart on board, and it tells you it’s a green light, that’s a life that I believe in, and that’s a life worth living.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, and they quote it back to you often?

Paul Epstein
“Actions over outcomes.” “Actions over outcomes” is one. Another one that’s really resonating, “Standards over goals.” That might actually be the more impactful one. “Standards over goals.” The whole world tells you to care about goals. I believe that standards are more closely aligned with who you are at your core, and things that are meaningful and that matter to you. So, I’m a big subscriber of standards over goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Paul Epstein
PaulEpsteinSpeaks.com, that’s the treasure trove, all things speaking, the confidence quiz gets you to one to a hundred within five minutes. Everything that you need is all at PaulEpsteinSpeaks.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Paul Epstein
Use the head-heart-hands equation. I’m just going to be very blunt about this. You don’t know what the impact of your work is until people actually start to use it. So, I can write a book all day long, and if nobody ever used it, there’s no impact. What I have seen in the earliest chapter of launching “Better Decisions Faster,” a lot of people bought it because of their work. They said, “Well, I want to make better decisions in work.”

But almost every single DM that I’m getting on social, almost every text message, almost every private email, some of them are work-related, 70% are not, “You’ve helped me make better decisions in my relationship, in my health, as a parent, how I manage my time, how I set my priorities.” It’s just been a really cool holistic life play. And I believe that that’s what the head-heart-hands equation can do for everybody listening in.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Paul, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and fun and many great green lights.

Paul Epstein
Yeah, likewise, buddy.

889: Deploying Your Unique Problem-Solving Strengths with Cheryl Strauss Einhorn

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Cheryl Einhorn provides tools to improve your decision-making skills.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key to countering bias in decision-making
  2. The five Problem Solver Profiles–and which one you are
  3. How to work with different types of decision-makers

About Cheryl

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn founded Decisive, a decision sciences company that trains people and teams in complex problem solving and decision-making skills using the AREA Method. AREA is an evidence-based decision-making system that uniquely controls for and counters cognitive bias to expand knowledge while improving judgment. Cheryl developed AREA during her two decades as an award-winning investigative journalist writing for publications ranging from The New York Times and Foreign Policy Magazine to Barron’s and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Cheryl teaches at Cornell University and has authored three books Problem Solved, A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction, about personal and professional decision-making, and Investing In Financial Research, A Decision-Making System for Better Results about financial and investment decisions. Her new book about Problem Solver Profiles, Problem Solver, Maximizing Your Strengths To Make Better Decisions, was published in March 2023 by Cornell University. Learn more by watching her Ted talk and visiting areamethod.com.

Resources Mentioned

Cheryl Einhorn Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Cheryl, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Cheryl Einhorn
Thank you. So good to be here with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to talk about your book, Problem Solver, and get some more insights into problem-solving goodies. But one problem I understand you’ve been working to solve for years is the perfect spice cookie. What’s the story here?

Cheryl Einhorn
Oh, I’m always experimenting. They say that cooking is an art and baking is a science, so that means that you can keep experimenting until you find what you think is just right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say spice cookie, what spices are we talking about here?

Cheryl Einhorn
Oh, I really throw in the kitchen sink. I like a lot of ginger. I think ginger is, like, this secret ingredient. And then a little bit of cayenne and all sorts of nuts thrown in so you get really good texture.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you go with the spice ginger or the powder ginger? Sorry, not spice, the fresh ginger or the…yeah.

Cheryl Einhorn
No, no, I like the fresh ginger. I like the fresh ginger, and I think something that people don’t appreciate enough is that you actually don’t have to peel it. The peel is actually good for you.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Cheryl Einhorn
So, I do recommend cleaning that first, but make sure that you leave that on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve already blown my mind about one minute into the interview, so this bodes well for the future. You don’t have to peel your ginger. Who knew? Okay. Well, talking about your book, Problem Solver, any particularly extra-surprising or fascinating or counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about problem-solving while putting this together?

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, absolutely, because what the research talks about is that there are five dominant ways that people approach their decisions, and that each of these different decision-making archetypes, I call them problem-solver profiles, and that’s why my book is called Problem Solver, each of them has some beautiful strengths but each of them also is correlated to a couple specific cognitive biases.

Those mental mistakes that can impede clear thinking and, therefore, each of them is actually optimizing for different things in their decisions. And if we can learn about which problem-solver is ours, we can better understand why we engage with our decisions in the way that we do, what kind of information do we think is important for making a decision, and we can also learn how to make better decisions with others based on understanding the other problem-solver profiles that are not our own.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Cheryl, this is exciting stuff and I’m eager to almost just dive in, table format, what’s the archetype, what are they optimizing for, what’s their strengths, what’s their bias. But maybe before we get to that level of meat, could you first share what’s at stake in terms of if we are great at problem-solving versus just okay at problem-solving, if we really know our archetype and we’re dialed into it versus we are just blissfully unaware of that knowledge?

Cheryl Einhorn
I think it’s a great question. The only thing that we truly have agency over in our lives are our decisions. And so, our decisions are the data of our lives. If we feel confident as decision-makers, if we have conviction that our decisions can move us forward into our good future, we can have a greater sense of wellness and of resilience. We can take on bigger challenges, and we feel like we can move through our day more easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Do you have any cool stories of someone who learned some of your stuff and was able to upgrade their decision-making, problem-solving to see some cool results?

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, absolutely. My company, Decisive, we work with decision-makers around the world. And what we’ve found is that, as we begin to work with almost anybody, whether it is somebody who would like to help their aging parents find the right house or housing accommodation as they age, or whether it is somebody who’s thinking about starting their own business, as people learn their problem-solving skills and feel better about what actually is a quality decision-making process, they feel better about themselves, and they feel like they can reach their goals and their dreams.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Any particular goals and dreams reached that was super inspirational?

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, we recently worked with a team that had been together, a senior leadership team, at an organization, a big international company, and what they had found is they had been working together for so long that they had sort of fallen into certain habits and patterns where they had some preconceived notions about who they can work well with, and who they kind of wanted to go around.

And by working together to uncover these problem-solver profiles, they now really felt like they could reduce their friction and work better together because they understood why each person was approaching a decision a certain way, why they were asking the questions they were. They weren’t being sluggish, or slow, or confrontational, but they needed to understand certain parts of the process in order for them to feel confident in the decision that they were making, and it really amplified and reignited what this team could do together and for the company.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Cheryl, I’m curious, in terms of our direction here, do you think it would be worthwhile to provide a refresher on the AREA Method for those who missed our first interview or do you think we can jump right into the archetypes?

Cheryl Einhorn
I’d be happy to give a refresher. So, AREA is an acronym for my system of complex decision-making that uniquely controls or counters cognitive bias so that we can expand our knowledge while improving our judgment. And, basically, it’s an order of operations where the A, absolute, gets up close on the target of your decision, the R, relative, then puts that decision into the broader context and collects information from related sources.

E, exploration upgrades your research beyond documents to identify good people and ask them great questions, it’s interviewing. Then AREA exploitation is a series of creative exercises to test your evidence against your assumptions. This is a new piece of decision-making which really helps you to strength-test your decisions.

And then the final A, analysis, helps you think about failure, which is so important because if you can identify how and where your decision could fail, you can shore up and prevent that weakness and also have a signpost to tell you when something is going awry in the execution phase, and when you might need to make a new decision.

So, that is just a brief summary of the AREA Method as an end-to-end system for complex problem-solving that includes all of the different perspectives, and really helps you to end up with a decision that has a good chance of succeeding.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cheryl, that’s lovely. Thank you. So, we’re all situated there. And now, okay, so we talked about cognitive biases a couple times. Now, I am familiar with this term and I find them so fascinating. I, one time, in my prior home in Chicago, had this beautiful poster, the Cognitive Bias Codex. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s got a brain in the middle, and then it’s just nicely sorted, like all these cognitive biases.

I think they’re, like, over 150 into segments. It was lovely but it didn’t successfully make it through the move but we’ll link to that in the show notes for anybody who wants to buy this beautiful piece of art. But what is a cognitive bias?

Cheryl Einhorn
So, basically, it’s a heuristic. It is a mental pathway, a way of thinking that actually can help us to make the many small decisions that we have during the day but that don’t go away when we’re solving for complex problems. Let me give you a couple examples of things I think we all do. One is the liking bias. We tend to overweight information that comes from somebody that we like. Or the planning fallacy, which is even if we’ve done a task before, we may believe that it can be done faster than actually the number of steps and the time that it takes.

Or, another one is the confirmation bias where we look to confirm a favored hypothesis instead of thinking about disconfirming data which has far more diagnosticity. So, those are just a couple of examples of how we sort of move through the world to help us go a little faster but they don’t necessarily help us to really be present in the moment to think about the decision that we’re actually facing on its own.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. That’s good. And I pulled up the image of the Cognitive Bias Codex in terms of it has categories, like, “Why do we have these shortcuts? Well, it’s sort of unclear. What should we remember? We’ve got too much information. We can’t make enough meaning out of something and we crave meaning. Or, we got to act fast and we can’t analyze every tidbit.”

Cheryl Einhorn
Our brain likes to conserve energy and it likes to take these shortcuts, and it definitely allows us to multitask. If you’re in the supermarket and you know exactly where the box is in the cereal aisle that you want to get, you can also be on the phone and maybe thinking about something from earlier in the day. So, you can be doing many things, but by reducing that cognitive load, it’s also not actively thinking through whatever it is you’re facing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. All right. So, lay it on us, these archetypes. We’ve got the adventurer, the detective, the listener, the thinker, the visionary. I guess that’s alphabetical. Is that how you like to, the sequence you like to move in or should we go at it? What’s your order of preference?

Cheryl Einhorn
That’s perfectly fine. One is not better than the other. As I said, they each have beautiful strengths but each of the problem-solver profiles are optimizing for different things in their decisions. So, the adventurer is a confident decision-maker, and he or she really favors making a lot of decisions. And there’s an underlying optimism bias to this because if they make a decision and it doesn’t work out the way they want, guess what? They always can make a new decision. And so, this is really a great person to have in your friend circle, in your colleague circle. They really help to make sure that you continually have momentum.

The detective, that’s what I am, this is a slower and more evidence-based decision-maker. For me to make a decision, if you don’t come to me with data, I really have trouble hearing you. I want you to substantiate it. And that has an underlying confirmation bias to it, which is that I can find the facts that I need to be able to share with you why my hypothesis is the correct one. And so, this is somebody, when you really want to be able to prove it, the adventurer can help you find the data that you need.

The listener is a relational, collaborative, inclusive decision-maker. And for this kind of a problem-solver profile, they have an underlying liking bias. They tend to have a trusted group of advisors, and they tend to overweight information that comes from those people, and they are people-centered. The thinker is your slowest decision-maker. This is somebody who really likes to explore their options. This can have a kind of frame blindness to it because they tend to look at the options against each other, which can circumscribe how they see and understand the problem.

And then the visionary is a creative open-ended decision-maker. This is somebody who has an underlying scarcity bias. They overvalue things that are original and things that maybe have not actually been on the table in the discussion, and that can also make them seem off-topic. And so, what I think you can see is that each of these different problem-solver profiles value different parts of decision-making.

And in order to make better decisions, alone and with others, you can really rapidly build trust and increase the speed of your decision-making by knowing the problem-solver profiles of the people who you’re making decisions with so you can come to them with what it is that they need to be able to discuss their decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s do a rapid recap there. So, the adventurer is optimizing for what?

Cheryl Einhorn
Forward momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
Forward momentum. And their cognitive bias is?

Cheryl Einhorn
Optimism bias.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then the detective, they’re optimizing for?

Cheryl Einhorn
Data.

Pete Mockaitis
And their bias is the confirmation bias.

Cheryl Einhorn
That’s correct.

Pete Mockaitis
And the listener is optimizing for what?

Cheryl Einhorn
Collaboration, cooperation.

Pete Mockaitis
And their bias is what?

Cheryl Einhorn
Liking bias.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-huh. And the thinker, likewise?

Cheryl Einhorn
The thinker is somebody who wants to understand their options, and a bias that would be associated might be the relativity bias.

Pete Mockaitis
And how do we define the relativity bias?

Cheryl Einhorn
Relativity bias is like the frame blindness. They see the world in a relative, “This versus that,” over a…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right. Option A versus option B.

Cheryl Einhorn
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And, finally, the visionary?

Cheryl Einhorn
The visionary is creative and really optimizing for originality. And one of the biases associated for them would be the scarcity bias. And in my book, I go through this in much more detail and I give you lots of what I call cheetah sheets. Can I describe why I call them cheetah sheets?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Cheryl Einhorn
So, the cheetah, while she’s the most fearsome hunter and can accelerate up to 60 miles per hour, her hunting prowess is actually from her deceleration, and she decelerates up to 9 miles an hour in a single stride. That gives her agility, flexibility, and maneuverability. And that’s what you need in quality decision-making.

And so, throughout all of my books, Problem Solved, on personal and professional decision-making, which introduces the AREA Method, Investing in Financial Research, about business, financial, and investment decisions, and this newest book, Problem Solver, I have cheetah sheets throughout which are worksheets that help you be a more agile and flexible decision-maker.

And each of these worksheets allows you to take the skill that you’re building and, basically, plug it right into your day. It gives you a series of questions that I ask that, as you answer them, help you to really be able to use the tools and the skills of each of these problem-solver profiles.

Pete Mockaitis
Nifty. All right. And I’m curious, do you have a sense of what proportion of people are adventurers versus detectives versus listeners?

Cheryl Einhorn
So, so far, I’ve collected information from well over 5,000 people. And for the people that take the problem-solver profile, we do have the largest group as thinkers. And I have been thinking about why that might be, and one of the things that occurs to me is the thinker is going to be very open to taking a quiz to help them to self-identify how they make decisions. They want to understand. The option for them is between the ears. They want to know the why.

An adventurer might hear about the problem-solver profiles on a podcast like this, and say, “I don’t need to take the quiz. I know I’m an adventurer.” Again, that forward momentum and the different ways that people are thinking about how they make their decisions, and the time to the decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And perhaps, to make it all the more real and concrete, could you walk us through a problem to be solved, or a decision to be made, and how each of the five archetypes would approach it?

Cheryl Einhorn
Yeah, one thing that I think is, in all of our common experience, might be going out to dinner with the five problem-solver profiles. When you get the menu and the adventurer looks at the menu, sees something on the menu that speaks to her, and she can put the menu down. She doesn’t have to read the whole menu because it’s not about all options. It’s about picking the first one that seems good to her.

The detective looks at the menu, notices that one of them has olives, loves olives, and thinks about, “Okay, based on that specific ingredient, that’s a dish that I’m probably going to like.” The thinker looks at the menu, and thinks about, “Well, what else have I had today? How do I want to balance out my diet for the day?” and maybe thinking about all of the eating that he or she has done as she looks at the menu to pick the dish.

The listener may be waiting to hear what all her friends order because she wants to hear what they think sounds good as well. And the visionary looks at the menu, likes the dish that has the olives, but looks at another dish and sees that the sauce might be better on that particular dish, and create something of her own. So, just from that example, I think you can see, again, that these different problem solvers are either skipping to decision-making or staying in problem-solving from very different vantage points.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, I have my own guess, but I’d love for you to diagnose me. When I’m looking at a menu, I find what I most often after is I want to be full and satisfied in a very efficient way per calorie while also experiencing deliciousness and novelty. So, I am looking at every option, and I’m sort of crossing them. I look at every option, and I eliminate every one until I’m left with perhaps two or three finalists.

And sometimes one just pops off because, hey, someone else is eating the other one so we’ve got the variety. And other times, I will, I’ve asked this question many times to wait staffs, like, “Which one is heartier? Or, which one is the most delicious and unique in your opinion?” And so, yeah, I guess I really am kind with everything. I’m all about optimizing experience relative to the criteria and values that matter most to me.

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, first, just the sheer amounts of things that you’re thinking about, and that you’re weighing against each other – hearty, savory, new, what does the waiter think – oh, my goodness, this sounds like a thinker to me. You’ve really got a lot going on. And while you can certainly have elements of listening, and elements of novelty, you’re not optimizing for forward momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Cheryl Einhorn
The pace of the decision doesn’t matter to you as much as making the right decision according to the criteria that you’ve identified.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. And when I do want it to go fast, I use the Chipotle app because I’ve already done all the thinking, and this is the exact bull that I want.

Cheryl Einhorn
And that’s very exciting to the thinker. The thinker, having it be like the three bears just so, that’s important. And that is in part why the thinker is such a slow decision-maker because the thinker has huge loss aversion. They are not optimizing for the best possible outcome. They are optimizing to mitigate the downside risks.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s true. I have had moments in a restaurant where I have intense regret, like, “I absolutely should’ve ordered what you had ordered.” And I regret having made the choice that I did.

Cheryl Einhorn
And that is something that really plagues the thinker. And regret is an emotion uniquely about our decisions, and it’s a very difficult decision. It’s a very difficult emotion.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s say we are resonating with a particular archetype, or we take the assessment. Well, first of all, let us know, what is the quick and easiest way we can learn what our archetype is?

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, you can go to App.AreaMethod.com and you sign up for it, and you can take the problem-solver profile. And then you can learn more about it and how to use it by reading Problem Solver, my new book which goes through how to really put it into practice, or, obviously, by getting in touch with me, and working with me to help you and your team, or your family, or your friends, in making decisions using this new knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s say we’ve got a sense for, “Okay, I’m a thinker and I’m working with an adventurer,” just for example, what do you think are the key implications in terms of, “So, now how do I live my work life differently with this knowledge?”

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, you have a really asymmetric risk-reward between these two because the adventurer wants the forward momentum, and the thinker wants to understand the why and to explore the options. And so, in a way, this can be just a wonderful group together because they’re really thinking about the problem differently.

And if you understand that, the adventurer then doesn’t have to feel frustrated that the thinker really needs to know that he or she has understood the why and the options, and the thinker doesn’t have to look at the adventurer, and say, “Why is this person in such a rush?” And together, you can really use each other’s strengths to make a decision that you both can feel good about.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell us, any other top tips or implications that we should bear in mind as we explore this stuff?

Cheryl Einhorn
Yeah, I think this is transformative. First, I don’t think that we really think that much about intellectual diversity, and the fact that the different problem-solver profiles are optimizing for different things means if you can bring in questions from all five of the vantage points, you can have a much more fulsome understanding of the problem that you’re solving.

And you also no longer, as I was mentioning, need to denigrate how other people approach their decisions. Somebody is no longer hasty. They are optimizing for forward momentum. And somebody is no longer sluggish or too slow, for instance, like the thinker. This is somebody who really wants to make sure that they’re mitigating the downside risks.

And so, I think it can give you a really beautiful appreciation for these different ways that people problem-solve and reminds you that your way is not better. It’s just different.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d like to delve into that a little bit in terms of I can understand the style and process can be neither better nor worse, just different. I suppose I’m wondering about if someone has a capacity as an officer, executive, director, agent of an organization, whether it’s government, or nonprofit, or corporation, like, “To maximize shareholder wealth” is the sacred, I guess, oath of executives of publicly-traded corporations, according to my finance curriculum from the University of Illinois.

So, in that world, in some ways it seems like what is to be optimized for is kind of the part of the job description, if you will. And so, from like a results perspective, I guess not so much from a process perspective, so just wrestling with that, how do you think about these matters?

Cheryl Einhorn
All of these problem-solver profiles are excellent leaders and bring very different kinds of energy to their leadership. So, all of them can be very successful no matter where they are in the for-profit or the nonprofit world.

But just like when we all were going to school and we needed to figure out how to succeed for a particular teacher, when you’re working with different problem-solver profiles, you will have an easier time building trust, strengthening the relationship, and making more successful decisions together if you have a window into which of the problem-solver profiles they are.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Cheryl, any final thoughts before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Cheryl Einhorn
No, I just think that this is absolutely transformative. In my own life, as I have applied this, I never would’ve imagined how this was able to help me with relationships, both new and ones that I’ve had for my entire life. So, I think it’s an incredible piece of research, and I really hope that it can help other people in feeling better about their own decisions, but also very much in making decisions and having good relationships with others.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Cheryl Einhorn
Yeah. So, one of my favorite quotes is, “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re absolutely right,” which I think was said by Henry Ford. And this is really about you putting in some of your own motivation and your own effort, and it’s this idea that the agency that you bring to something is what really can help you to succeed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And can you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Cheryl Einhorn
I’ve got a favorite study or piece of research, which is this research study about teachers, that the most success that the students have is, in part, by having a teacher who really believes in them. And I would think that this would be true outside of the world of education, that having somebody who really believes in you helps to give you incredible motivation and resiliency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Cheryl Einhorn
One of my favorites is The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. He is a former chess champion and also a champion in the world of martial arts in what’s called push hands.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Cheryl Einhorn
I would say that one of the things that I use is this idea of not leaving before you leave. When I finish something, or get up from the day, or finish a meeting, I stay with whatever that topic is for a few minutes after to sum up my thoughts and make sure that I can re-enter well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Cheryl Einhorn
Well, I think it’s the same idea of not leaving before you leave.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Cheryl Einhorn
I think it’s this idea that there’s two kinds of learning – there’s knowledge and skill. And, for me, decision-making is a skill, which means I can teach you those skills and they can be yours.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Cheryl Einhorn
I would point them to my website, which is AreaMethod.com. And there, you can learn about my books, and my research, and my articles, and get in touch to work together.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Cheryl Einhorn
Yeah, if you can invest in your decision-making, it can unlock everything that you’re doing, personally and professionally.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cheryl, thanks for chatting, and good luck with all your decisions.

Cheryl Einhorn
Thank you so much for having me today and for this conversation.

882: Setting your Future Self up for Success with Dr. Hal Hershfield

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Hal Hershfield discusses how to make–and stick with–better decisions to enrich your future self.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you should build a relationship with your future self
  2. How to motivate yourself to do the hard things now
  3. The key to creating lasting habits

About Hal

Hal Hershfield is a Professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and holds the UCLA Anderson Board of Advisors Term Chair in Management.

His research, which sits at the intersection of psychology and economics, examines the ways we can improve our long-term decisions. He earned his PhD in psychology from Stanford University.

Hershfield publishes in top academic journals and also contributes op-eds to the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets. He consults with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, many financial services firms such as Fidelity, First Republic, Prudential, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Avantis, and marketing agencies such as Droga5. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, Hershfield was named one of “The 40 Most Outstanding B-School Profs Under 40 In The World” by business education website Poets & Quants. His book, Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today, will be published in June.

Resources Mentioned

Hal Hershfield Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Hal, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Hal Hershfield
Hey, thanks so much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into some of the wisdom in your book, Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today. But, first, I wanted to hear from you, could you share one of the best and one of the worst decisions that you’ve personally made on behalf of your future self?

Hal Hershfield
That’s a good one, ooh. Okay, the easy answer there is marrying my wife. That’s got to be the obvious one.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, she’s listening. It’s the obvious one, yeah.

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, so I don’t know. Should I come up with another answer?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll count it.

Hal Hershfield
Worst decision, oh, man, it’s like there’s so many to choose from there. Okay, worst decision is more of a sort of perpetual thing and not one specific decision. But I tend to be really bad at taking care of small tasks. I procrastinate on them and it is regularly bad for my various future selves.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a category of task that gets procrastinated all the time?

Hal Hershfield
Oh, yeah, anything with regards to administrative, filling out receipts, or like submitting a claim for insurance, or putting in my car registration. There are sorts of things that requires some amount of work, I don’t know why. I know why. I know why. I don’t like doing them. I always find them, sort of I’m worried that I’m not going to fill it in right, and then I just keep pushing it off.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And then sometimes, I don’t know what this says about me, I’m frustrated that the system isn’t easy. In a world of apps, and iteration, and cost and improvement, and our technology and processes, and web forms, and apps and stuff, it’s like, “Wait, seriously, I got to mail you a check? I’m going to print something out or…really?”

Hal Hershfield
Game over. As soon as it says, “Print this out,” it’s like game over because the chances that the printer at my office or the printer at home will work is considerably low.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, do you have the paper? Do you have the ink? And what I love is that Amazon is super customer focused. I now notice when I try to print a return label, it said one of the options was, “We’ll print it for you and mail it to you in four business days for 50 cents.” I don’t remember, the price was pretty good. It’s like they know. They know that printing a label is too much for me.

Hal Hershfield
It’s such a sad comment but it’s so true. And I love it, remove the friction. Make it easier.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so I’d love to hear, while putting together and researching the book Your Future Self, any really surprising or extra-fascinating and counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made in the research?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, I actually think one of the more counterintuitive parts that I came across in researching the book was the idea that we can experience what’s known as hyperopia. And what that means is, well, in my research, I focus on what’s called myopia, when we’re too sort of tunnel-focused, we have tunnel vision on the present. Hyperopia is when we reverse that. We focus so much on the future that we miss the present. And the irony there is that, in doing that, we end up making things worse for ourselves in the future as well. And that was a bit of work that really surprised me. I hadn’t really thought about that possibility before.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us an example?

Hal Hershfield
Have you ever had a gift certificate for a restaurant and you’re just waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Hal Hershfield
And you’re doing it because you’re thinking, “I really want to maximize this, and I want this to be good for…so that future version of me that gets to go there,” and you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and it closes. That is hyperopic. But there’s obviously more serious versions of that. There are versions of that, in fact, with our professional lives where we tell ourselves that we’re taking care of tasks, we’re doing things because that’s good for the future. And we somehow end up prioritizing the urgent over the important.

It’s like a version of this because we’re telling ourselves that we’re doing something, we’re doing something good for the long run, but, in reality, we maybe sort of shortchanging ourselves and actually making things less good for ourselves in the long term because we’re not focused on the big, important things that will actually move the ball down the field for ourselves. And that’s true both professionally and personally.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, it sounds like maybe we’ve already touched on it, but, zooming out a bit, how would you put forward the main big idea or core thesis of the book Your Future Self?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, sure. So, I think the core thesis of the book is that there are different versions of ourselves that exist over time, and, in some ways, we think about our future selves as if they are other people. And that’s okay so long as we focus on the relationship that we have with that other person. And so, the book is really aimed at understanding the relationships that we have with our future selves, and then figuring out how to improve them so that we can do things that benefit us both in the future and now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we talk about relationships. Are there some categories or archetypes? Does anybody hate their future self, like, “My relationship with my future self is my future self is my nemesis”? Or, what’s the palette or menu of choices for how that relationship can be?

Hal Hershfield
Right. That’s a fantastic question. Empirically, I’ve never asked people, “Do you hate them?” That said…

Pete Mockaitis
That’d be sad.

Hal Hershfield
It would be really sad if somebody said that. In my research and the research that others have done, we sort of treat the relationship with a future self the same way that you would treat our relationships with spouses, partners, close friends, which is to say that there’s varying degrees of distance. I can have a friend who I know, maybe they’re in my group of friends that I see but I’m not really that close to them. They exist but I don’t really connect to them.

All the way down to I can have that best friend, the person who I spend…want to spend all my time with, or my spouse, or my kids, or my aging parents. I would say that the spectrum of relationships goes from a stranger who’s sort of you see them, you know they exist but you don’t really connect to them, and don’t really know them, all the way to a person with whom you feel a great degree of emotional connection.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, this is all intriguing from a thought experiment kind of a world. But could you lay it on us in terms of what’s at stake, what are the implications of getting this relationship right versus not so right?

Hal Hershfield
Sure. We’ve looked at a variety of different things, so one thing we know the people who are more connected to their future selves, they’ve accumulated more assets over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Financially.

Hal Hershfield
Financially-speaking, exactly. We know that people feel more connected, they report greater subjective health. We found that they’re less likely to endorse unethical business practices. In other words, this is another sort of tradeoff. If I feel a lack of connection to my future selves, doing something that might financially benefit me right now but I could suffer some consequences later, well, maybe that’s okay. I’m not really thinking about later.

Other researchers have found that people that are connected to their future selves, they do better in school, higher grades, and even experience greater amounts of life satisfaction and meaning in life. I should say there’s always other factors and variables that play across these different studies. We’ve tried hard, and others have tried hard, too, to sort of isolate, and say, “Well, even in the face of things like age or education, do these relationships bear out?” And, sure enough, they seem to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so when you talk about this connection, what does that maybe look, sound, feel like in terms of our internal dialogues when we have a good rich connection to our future selves versus the non-desired alternative?

Hal Hershfield
It’s a really fascinating question that you raised because it’s not, I should say, we don’t ask people, “What does that conversation look like?” Most likely, they’re so much more idiosyncratic behavior and answers that could be given. I don’t really know what the answer would be but here’s my suspicion. I suspect that a conversation with a future self who I care deeply about is going to look more like the way that I think about and treat the people in my life who I really want to care for and take responsibility for.

The same way that you might feel about your spouse if you’re really connected to them, or the same way that you might feel about your kid, or, even I could think about the workplace, a co-worker that you really appreciate, or even an employee that they’re sort of under you but you still take an interest in their wellbeing. That’s the type of connection or relationship that we might see when we see a high degree of overlap between current and future selves.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. And now I’m thinking about how, recently, this isn’t an earth shattering story, but I felt the implications. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, my desk is not the tidiest, and so I’ve accumulated LaCroix cans and more, and papers and all over the place. And so, it was a Friday, I took some time, like, “I’m really going to clean this up really well,” and so I did.

And then, Monday, I came in and I was surprised. I had forgotten my office desk had been cleaned by me in the past, and I said, “Oh, how delightful.” It’s like I was surprised. And the word relationship really does ring true here, I was like, “Well, thank you, past me. I really appreciate you cleaning up that desk because it’s just actually a joy to come into the office and behold this clean desk. I’m in a good mood and I appreciate me for having made that happen.”

Hal Hershfield
It’s a little gift from past you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Hershfield
Yeah. I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it was cool.

Hal Hershfield
I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
And yet, most of the time, though, I don’t have that relationship in terms of, like good or bad, I don’t know. Like, you step on the scale, you look at the mirror, and go, “Ugh, past self, you really should’ve been watching the calories a little more, or hitting the gym a little more, or watch the diet when you get a check-in with the doctor.” It doesn’t even occur to me to think about past self in that relationship kind of a way.

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I can relate to that. There are so many of those times where we’re sort of not thinking about all the different actions that we have and how they add up. The annual physical is a great example of that, when you say, “Oh, your cholesterol is a little high.” It’s like, I cannot recall the number of times that I ate in a way that probably wasn’t good for my cholesterol, but, in those moments, I’m not thinking about how each one of those kinds of sums up to the sort of worst whole.

But then, on the flipside, the gift from past self, it’s like I had this experience pang. I think I must’ve paid for a rental car going to a friend’s wedding, completely had forgotten, I go up to pay for it, and they’re like, “You already paid for it.” I’m like, “Well, who paid for it? Like, that guy, the past me? Like, what a sucker, but I’m glad he did it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Or, just sort of like accounts that accrue. I’m thinking about back when I was consulting, there was a benefit where you could use pre-tax dollars to fund your mass transit cards. Invariably, these things just accrued to large sums because I completely forgot, like they’re sort of taken out of a paycheck.

And when people go off to business school, they’d say, “Hey, well, I’m going to Harvard. I’m not going to be in Chicago anymore. I’ve got a card with $300 of mass transit value, and I’m going to sell it at a discount.” So many of those emails, actually, in my time there. And so, yeah, you just autopilot, forget, and sometimes that works in your favor.

Hal Hershfield
Yup, 100%. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to hear do you have any cool success stories or inspiring case studies associated with folks who were able to upgrade their relationship to their future self and then see cool things emerge as a result?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, actually, one of my favorite success stories, it was really funny. This was, oh, gosh, pretty deep in COVID, and I got this random email, and it’s from a high school kid, Enmal was his name. And he basically reaches out and says, “I’ve got to tell you, I went pretty dark during COVID.” I think he was like a high school junior, and when it started, he was having all of his classes at home and he’s not seeing his friends. And he says, “My diet basically consisted of ice cream and Chick-fil-A and Fruit Loops.” I forget which cereal it was but nothing super healthy. No offense to any of those companies, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
The Fruit Loops marketing brand manager is listening and enraged at you, Hal.

Hal Hershfield
Let me walk that back. Generic fast-food restaurants. And he ends up gaining 30 pounds, and he said, “I came across some of your research, and I decided to try to put it into practice.” And he said, “I went online and I printed out like an ideal-looking picture of myself, skinnier.” He used some sort of, I don’t know which technology he used to make himself look a little skinnier and healthier. He said, “I printed that, I put it in the bathroom, and I put it on the fridge.”

And he said, “Looking at that, basically, like wherever I was in the house, kept reminding me of the version of me I wanted to get back to and the version of me I wanted to become.” And it wasn’t that he just cut back on those foods. He also started exercising, etc. And he said in the span of several months, he ended up losing that weight. I forget the exact amount of time. He’s a high school kid so I think he’s probably able to gain and lose weight a little bit easier than the rest of us.

But I was really inspired by him because he was trying to consider a version of his future self who he wanted to become, and I think that sort of forced him, or prompted him, or kept him, held his hand along the way to do the things that he needed to do to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
That is excellent. Well, my key takeaway from that is to find a website that lets me visualize buffed Pete and take a look at that image, see what that does for me. And so, that’s cool in that it made it very real, concrete, visualizable, like, “Oh, okay,” as opposed to amorphous, like, “Oh, the future me is something off in space or in my imagination as opposed to something I could potentially behold with eyes visually.” That’s cool.

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, and I think that’s right because, to some degree, if I say, “Think of a future Pete,” there’s probably a lot of different images that could arise there. And you might be able to create sort of an average of them, sort of an amalgamation of them, but this specific image is vivid, and that can be a pretty strong motivator for behavior, “Now, I’ve got like an actual version of me, I’m thinking about looking at.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so could you lay it on us, are there some other actionable approaches we can take to do a better job at making prudent decisions and actions in the present that benefit our future selves?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ll mention a couple. The marketing professor in me, of course, is saying, “You have to buy the book to find out all of them,” but I’ll mention a couple. So, there’s a category of strategies that involve trying to bring the future self closer to the present. One of those things, of course, is vividly visualizing the future self.

That doesn’t have to be just through apps. There are these apps that do age progression pretty well. But we can also try to get people to write a letter to their future self, and then write one back from that future self. It’s a really cool activity because it forces you to not only think about the future, but then to sort of go into the future and look back to now, which is, ultimately, putting yourself in the shoes of your future self, seeing the world through their eyes. That’s a vividness-enhancing exercise.

There are other strategies, though, that don’t involve necessarily trying to bring the future self closer but rather involve making the present, or rather making present-day sacrifices easier. So, what I mean by that is that every time I talk about these sorts of optimal behaviors, sometimes it’s hard to do them because it feels like all that you’re doing is sacrificing. It’s like, you right now that’s got to experience the pain for future use gain, which is it’s not a great situation to be.

And if you think about the relationship analogy that we talked about before, it’s like now you’re always the one sacrificing, future you is always the one benefitting. That’s not great. So, we’ve explored different ways that we can make present day sacrifices feel easier. One of my favorites is something that we call temporal reframing. I think there’s probably other terms for this, but the general idea is that I chunk something down into smaller and smaller parts.

I’ll give you an example of this. My collaborators and I, we worked with a fintech bank, a fintech company, this is an app designed to get people to save, and we asked people if they wanted to sign up for an automatic savings account, and some people got the message that they could sign up for $150 a month account, and other people got a message saying they could sign up for a $5 a day account. Now, it’s the same amount of money, of course, five bucks a day is 150 bucks a month. Four times as many people signed up when it was framed as $5 a day. I think it’s just an easier sacrifice to make.

Other researchers have found that that same sort of temporal reframing can get people to volunteer more, to do more volunteer hours. Rather than 200 hours total, how about four hours a week or whatever it is? We can sort of break it down in different parts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah.

Hal Hershfield
Now, one of the other strategies that falls under this sort of bucket of making the present easier is, I don’t know what the right term is, I like to call it sort of like attack the side, not the core. Janet Schwartz, she’s a friend of mine, she’s a behavioral scientist, and she had this, I think, such a clever idea. She was going to Coney Island one summer with her friends, and it was right after New York started doing the calorie labeling on menus.

She goes there and she goes to get the hotdog and a side of fries. Like, what else are you going to do when you go to Coney Island, of course? And she sees that the fries are about 1100 calories, which is I think quite high.

Pete Mockaitis
And doesn’t even fill you up.

Hal Hershfield
That’s right. And no one goes there for the…I mean, you don’t go there for the fries. You go there for the hotdog. So, she and her friends said, “Wow, that’s a lot. How about we split the fries and we each got a hotdog?” And she starts thinking, “Wait, there’s something to this.” If you have a goal of, I don’t know, in this case, cutting down on your calories, you could do it in a painful way of cutting back on the thing that you love, or you could achieve the exact same thing by cutting back on something that’s much more peripheral.

It would be ridiculous if she got the fries and a third of a hotdog. And so, she actually worked with a restaurant where they put something like this in their plates, where the cashiers offered the restaurant patrons the option to get a half of the scoop of fried rice. They can get their full order of orange chicken or whatever it is that they’re getting but you want to take a half of the side. You pay the same amount, which is crazy.

And about a third of people say, “Yeah, I’ll do that,” which is so interesting because it suggests that that’s a strategy that people, I think, might warm to. So, again, that’s all about making the present day sacrifices easier. And then there’s a third sort of category of practical strategies, Pete, that I call staying on course.

This is where you, essentially, say, “Okay, you know what, there’s this version of me right now, there’s a version in the future who’s going to want to look back, and say, ‘Hey, I did the thing, I ate healthy, I was productive at work, I saved money,’” and then there’s the guy in the middle who is going to screw it up, the guy who, “I say I’m going to get up tomorrow and go for a run,” and that guy tomorrow morning who’s going to say, “I can’t do it. I got to sleep in.”

And so, this third category of strategies basically says recognizing that there’s all those tensions there, let’s figure out what we call commitment devices, strategies where we can put sort of guardrails on our behavior so that we don’t screw things up. So, one website called stickK.com, that’s with two Ks. Do you know this one?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve been there but I don’t think listeners do, so lay it on us.

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, and it’s basically this website where I can put in my goal. Let’s say I want to work out three days a week, 30 minutes at a time, and then I’ll say, “Who’s going to follow up with me? It’s going to be you, Pete. And, oh, I’ll give you my credit card, and I’ll give it the name of an anti-charity.” Well, we don’t have to get political but an organization I don’t want to donate to. How does that sound?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just for example, we might say guns. Some people might be pro-gun, some people might be anti-gun. And so, you can imagine your dollars flowing in the direction you don’t want it to go, just to make it clear for folks, yeah.

Hal Hershfield
There you go. That’s really good. Or, you could say Trump versus Biden, right? Some are on either side. Now, you’re going to call me at the end of the week, and you’re going to say, “Hal, did you do it? Did you work out three times?” And I’ll say, “Pete, this week was tough. I only worked out twice.” And you’ll say, “Okay, good to know.” You’re going to click no on my account, and instantly 200 bucks is going to go toward that charity, that organization, that I don’t want to donate to. That’s a pretty strong motivator.

Now, I’m not saying I won’t mess up but it might make it a lot harder for me to stay in bed a little bit longer if I know doing so was going to cost me possibly hundreds of dollars and not towards some charity that I wanted to donate to but toward one I don’t want to donate to. And there’s other versions of this. There are all sorts of levels of commitment devices which I get into the book. But the key here is picking something that is a strong enough punishment to deter the behavior that we don’t want to do but not so strong that I don’t sign up for this to begin with.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And to that point about it not being too strong, it’s funny, I’ve chatted with folks about stickK.com, and they said, “You know, I think that’s a really effective motivator but the anti-charity is so evil to me. Like, I don’t even feel morally okay with setting that structure up in my life.” And so, my wife and I, we were joking, and we were saying, “Well, huh, as a thought experiment, what is something that would hurt to give money to and yet doesn’t feel morally problematic?”

And I think we found some, like, super ritzy country club. So, it’s like, “They don’t need our money. They don’t need it. Like, who knows what it’s going to go to, like polishing golf balls? I don’t even know what they would do with extra money. They don’t need it. But it wouldn’t be evil for them to get it.”

Hal Hershfield
It’s so good because it’s not morally reprehensible. That’s so good.

Pete Mockaitis
It just feels really bad for them to get it.

Hal Hershfield
There’s another version of this that doesn’t involve a financial punishment. It’s a product called the Pavlok.

Pete Mockaitis
We interviewed that guy, yeah.

Hal Hershfield
Oh, did you? That’s fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Maneesh Sethi, back in the day.

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, that’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
I tried one. It’s not comfortable.

Hal Hershfield
Oh, did you? Yeah, I had a student who told me he just has the hardest time getting out of bed. And putting this on, basically, the more you snooze, I forget what his setting was, but it’s like if he snoozed more than a couple times, he’d start getting shocked by this thing to get him out of bed.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like a rubber band around your wrist but more unpleasant. But, again, that same principle holds, it’s like, “If the shock is so unpleasant, and you have to push a button to administer it to yourself, then you may not do it.” So, I like the automaticity and I like the third-party bits, but, in a way, that’s part of the fun. It sounds like you have a lot of examples in the book.

It’s to think about, “Well, what works for you based on is it so repugnant you can’t even countenance doing it? Okay, well. then maybe something else. But is it so minor, you don’t even care? Like, okay, well, you got to crank it up.”

Hal Hershfield
Right, exactly. It’s funny, I have this thing now, in writing the book, I ended up talking with this guy, Dave Krippendorf, who founded this company. It was originally called Kitchen Safe, and basically a little box you put in the kitchen. There’s a little electronically timed lock on top of the box. He designed it for people to put away their snack food. You can time it anywhere from a minute to 10 days.

So, my kids’ Halloween candy, whatever it is, I pop it in there, I’ll set it for 12 hours so I don’t touch it tonight. Well, he found that so many people were using it for so many things other than snacks, that he renamed it the kSafe, from Kitchen Safe to kSafe. He sent me one, and Pete, I use it for my phone, I have to admit, it’s not like we have dinner with our kids every night.

But a couple nights a week or whenever the schedules work out, it’s such a bad distraction when I have it at the table, “Oh, I just need it to change the music,” or, “I just need it to…” whatever. It’s just there. And then before I know it, I am checking Twitter, or my email, or something that is like totally meaningless. I think this is probably relatable, I assume. Tell me this isn’t just me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Hal Hershfield
So, I throw my phone in there, I’ll set the timer for two hours. Let’s say we have dinner at 5:30, it’s put in there for 7:30 or whatever. I know that sounds like a very early dinner but our kids are little. And it’s amazing because it completely removes the temptation, like it’s not even when I get up, I’m like, “Oh, I see my phone. I should check it.” It’s like it’s just not there so I don’t even worry about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and it’s cool. That’s really cool. And maybe it’s a video game controller or any number of things: snacks, phones.

Hal Hershfield
Video game controllers is a great example. I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, the commitment device, so it takes a bit of you out of it, and that’s really handy. I wanted to get your take. I love it when you drop these numbers in terms of with the temporal reframing, with the five bucks a day versus 150 a month. We have a 4X lift in intake. And then a third of the people opted to go for half of the fried rice.

To the fried rice point, I’ve just got to mention, once when I was looking at my calories pretty closely, I was at a Cheddar’s and so I made my order, and then just randomly they brought out this honey biscuit thing, and I said, “Oh, what’s this?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, it’s a honey biscuit. It has this and this and this, and it’s on the house. It’s just a thank you for being here.” I said, “Oh, wow.”

Hal Hershfield
On the house. On the house means the calories don’t count, right?

Pete Mockaitis
So, I said, “Oh, wow, that’s great. Thank you. Could you take it away?” He was like puzzled, I was like, “Yeah, I’m just concerned I might eat it.” And so, he did, and that was cool. And then BJ Fogg, he talks about tiny habits. He was on the show. And he, was it chips or Noah’s bread, he would just fill up on bread if he was at the table, and so he just rehearsed his line with a smile, “Oh, no bread for me. Thanks.” It’s like, “Don’t put this on the table. I will eat it.”

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, it’s so good. The bread one is so good. One of the things I talk about in the book is, about five years ago, I got diagnosed with celiac, and it’s been so interesting because I was also one of those people, especially in social situations where my social anxiety was dialed up just a little bit, I would find myself just eating all of the things that were out that I wasn’t even hungry for, but just eating. And it’s often the sliders, the bread, the whatever.

So, all of that stuff is now off the table for me. And it’s really interesting because it’s almost like there’s this giant kSafe walking around with me when it comes to carbs like that. And so, when I’m at a restaurant, I’m not even tempted by the basket of bread because it’s like I know I just can’t eat it. But it’s like psychologically, “What are the shifts that we can make to make that happen?”

And I love the BJ Fogg example of, like, “None for me, please.” It just makes it automatic. It’s a habit. That’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, so we talked about a number of commitment devices. And, ah, yes, I wanted to ask, when you dropped these numbers, 4X on the temporal reframing, a third people opting for half of the fried rice amount, any other sort of eye popping numbers in terms of, “Huh, this little intervention makes a world of difference”?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah. Well, it’s funny, I get cautious with eye popping numbers in social science because they always say, “Was that real?” So, I’ll say, “Look, the temporal reframing, the 4x difference, I thought that was 30% versus 7%. That’s pretty big.” We have another study that’s coming out, or should be out any day now, where we worked with the Bank of Mexico, 50,000 customers, half of them get access to these aged images of themselves, and half don’t, and they’re all getting these messages that they should save.

And the folks who do, they’re 16% more likely to make a contribution to their account. So, when you say, “Was that eye popping?” I don’t know if that’s eye popping per se, but what I find exciting about this is that if I can get 16% more people to do anything when it comes to behavior, then that can really add up and compound over time.

You think about that for voting, or taking care of your teeth or your health, or, in this case, making a contribution to your retirement account. That really can add up and compound in ways that are really beneficial over time.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m also thinking about sort of general decision-making. When it’s not a matter of discipline, but rather just considering options, is there a way you recommend taking into account our future selves in the decision-making process?

Hal Hershfield
I think that is such a good question. It’s funny, because so much of my research has been focused on “How do we relate to our future selves? How do we connect to them?” and so on. But I don’t think the answer here is you should talk to them and think about them all the time. I think that, well, first off, we’re going to start ignoring them. Secondly, I just don’t think it’s sustainable.

So, I think that there’s probably some sort of balancing act here, and I wish I could say to you, “The research says this is the amount of time you should talk to your future self, and this is the amount of time that you shouldn’t.” We don’t know that. And, in all honesty, if I were to do that study, I’m sure there would be so many sorts of individual differences there. For some people, it makes sense to talk more, and some people less.

Here’s what I will say, though, my suspicion is that when it comes to big decisions and things that, once you decide, there’s some sort of automaticity that will carry out over time. So, like signing up for a savings account, signing up to work with a nutritionist or a career coach or whatnot. For those sorts of decisions, I think it may make a lot of sense to really try to step into the shoes of your future self, and think about how this action will impact that person.

For the everyday ones, things like my credit card, my eating habits, whether I get up and exercise or not, for those types of decisions, that’s where I think the world of habit formation becomes much more relevant, but I want to say that we should start, before we can even start going down the path of habit formation, it makes sense to have that conversation with our future selves and strengthen that bond with them so that, “Now, I can, essentially, get the ball rolling, and get the process started to do those things that will, ultimately, benefit me later, but also now.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And I’m curious, is there an overwhelming category of activities, or domains, or responsibility where people undercount their future self?

Hal Hershfield
Wow, that’s great. So, not that I know of, I can’t say, “Oh, there’s this one thing.” It’s easy to point to the different domains that sort of we know pop up all the time. So, under-saving and overspending, overeating, not exercising enough, those are the ones that sort of come up. And, in fact, if you look at the goals that people put forth on stickK.com, a lot of them have to do with exercising and eating behaviors.

I think there’s another one that maybe doesn’t come up as explicitly but it’s still relevant is time expenditures, “So, how I divvy up my time for the things that feel good right now in the moment versus the things that will last and give me benefits and wellbeing and positivity and joy over time?” And, as an example, to get concrete, I don’t know if you have this, but I have the thing that come up a lot for me is know I should call one my buddies, a friend I haven’t seen in a while just to catch up for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or even set aside a night to go out and get drinks or dinner or whatever.

But in the moment, it almost feels better to just not do it. I can go do the thing I was doing, or be on Instagram, watch an episode of Succession, or whatever it is that I’m watching. And there’s like a little present moment bump from just kind of being lazy and ignoring that phone call or the plan-making. But the reality is, over and over and over again, those decisions will be bad for my relationships. Those expenditures of time will take away from the time that I get to spend with people that I might genuinely care about.

And here’s the real irony, if I sort of get over that initial little discomfort, and reach out and call my buddy, or set up a plan to have dinner with them, and that’s true, by the way, for our spouses and our other family members, too, those things are good for the long run but they’re also good for now, too. Like, I haven’t once felt one of those phone calls with an old friend, and said, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that.” Normally, a good use of time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Hal Hershfield
Oh, no, I think you asked so many good questions. This is great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hal Hershfield
I’m not sure if it’s actually like a famous quote or not, but it’s something that one of my mentors told me, “You can’t get what you don’t ask for.” And I love that in the sort of negotiation context.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Hal Hershfield
Favorite experiment or bit of research is probably work on what’s known as the End-of-History Illusion. I talked about it in the book but it’s the basic idea that I can recognize that I’ve changed from the past to the present, but I somehow think that my rate of change, or my rate of progress, will slow from now unto the future, that I’ve somehow arrived at who I am. This is work by Jordi Quoidbach, and Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson. And I think it sheds some really interesting light on how we sometimes do a disservice to our future selves by not recognizing the ways in which we will change moving forward.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Hal Hershfield
I love the book A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. And it is all about different sort of friends but some of whom are connected, and some of whom aren’t, and the sort of these various little interconnections that exist both within a certain group in New York City, but then also over time. This is from, like, 10, 12 years ago. And it’s just sort of a fascinating examination of the web of connections that exist between the people we know now as well as from the past and to the future.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Hal Hershfield
Evernote. I don’t know if that’s the type of tool that you’re looking for.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Hal Hershfield
But being able to have sort of my notes everywhere, wherever I am, is super useful for me because there’s always things that are popping up, and then anytime I’ve told myself, “I’ll remember that thing later,” I pretty much never do. And so, being able to jot it down quickly and have it, assume everything else is super important for me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Hal Hershfield
My wife and I started to plan out the meals that we’re going to have, whatever it is, on Friday or Saturday, more or less for the rest of the week. And it has drastically decreased the tension involved around what should we have for dinner every night, and drastically increased my efficiency and productivity the rest of the week because I don’t have to spend that time thinking about, “What are we doing for dinner?” I just look at the little sheets, say, “Oh, that’s what we planned out.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah. So, one of the key nuggets that I think people sort of quote back to me often is it’s really more just the big idea that there can be this future self, this salient future self that can exist in the future. I’ve heard a lot of people say to me, “I haven’t thought about things that way, and it gives me sort of a person to consider, and then also an optimistic take on where I’m going through time.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, you can go to my website HalHershfield.com. Everything about my research and my book and whatnot is there. You can find me on LinkedIn or Twitter as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Hal Hershfield
Yeah, I would say one final challenge for folks who are looking to be awesome at their jobs is to consider not the tradeoff between now and later, but to think about the harmony between now and later. So, think about the things that you are doing at work and at your jobs that will benefit you now, and may not benefit you in the future, but then also switch the focus. Think about the things that you can do right now that will provide benefits both now and later. And then consider how you’re spending your time in those different pursuits.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Hal, this has been a treat. I wish you and your future self much luck.

Hal Hershfield
Hey, thanks, Pete. I appreciate it.

877: Why Small Decisions Matter—and How to Make them Better with Richard Moran

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Richard Moran makes the compelling case for why we should take the small decisions in life more seriously.

You’ll Learn:

  1. One word to purge from your vocabulary.
  2.  The simple trick that makes making decisions easier.
  3. How to use your gut effectively.

About Richard

Richard A. Moran is a Silicon Valley-based business leader, workplace pundit, bestselling author, venture capitalist, former CEO and college president. He is best known for his series of humorous business books beginning with the bestselling, Never Confuse a Memo with Reality, and is credited with starting the genre of “Business Bullet Books.”

His body of work includes 10 books about using commonsense in business. He is the host of the CBS syndicated radio program, “In the Workplace.” Rich has appeared on CNN, NPR, and most major media outlets. He continues to work with organizations to help them make better decisions and is an “influencer” on LinkedIn where he is a regular contributor.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

  • BetterHelp. Make better decisions with online therapy. Get 10% off your first month at BetterHelp.com/awesome.

Richard Moran Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Richard, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Richard Moran
Thanks, Pete. I’m happy to be here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re happy to have you talking decision-making in your book Never Say Whatever: How Small Decisions Make a Big Difference. Could you maybe kick us off with one of the trickiest or most interesting decisions or decision-making processes you’ve ever witnessed?

Richard Moran
Sure. Well, in the book, I interviewed a lot of people about how they make small decisions, and my books is not about huge decisions in our lives. It’s about the thousands of small decisions that we’re making every day. And I asked some people, “How do you make these small decisions?” And I got all kinds of interesting answers. Everything from some people, one guy said he turns over the Magic 8 Ball until he gets the right answer, you know, the toy, the Magic 8 Ball. Some people ask Siri, “Hey, Siri, what should I do about this?” But those are sort of the outliers. What most people do is say things like…

Siri
“Make a note. Define happenstance. And set a timer for 20 minutes.”

Richard Moran
Sorry, there she is.

Pete Mockaitis
Actually, that’s perfect.

Richard Moran
Yeah, she actually, there she is. She does everything.

Siri
It’s okay, Rich.

Richard Moran
Stop, Siri. Most people use simple things like pros and cons and if-then scenarios and things like that. The book is about small decisions, and in my research, I found that there’s like 3500 small decisions that we make every day, and all of them matter. If you don’t make any single one of them, your little world on that day might go sideways.

Pete Mockaitis
Thirty-five hundred, so, geez, that’s like three or four a minute of consciousness.

Richard Moran
Yeah. Well, think about it, in the research, they did the simple test of the decisions that you make when you go out to lunch with a colleague, and they found that there’s about 350 decisions that you make when you go out to lunch – where to go, where to sit, leave your jacket, take your jacket, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, sourdough, wheat. You get the idea.

But every time you say, “Whatever” to any of those decisions, you’re likely to get just the sandwich that you don’t want. So, all I do is highlight that every time you say the word ‘whatever’ bad things might happen. And this might be the easiest interview you’ve ever done because all I want your listeners to do is stop saying, “Whatever.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Richard Moran
As simple as that. I’m the evangelist to kill one word – whatever.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so tell me, while you were putting together this book, any interesting, surprising discoveries?

Richard Moran
Yeah. Well, I interviewed leaders as well as men and women on the street. And what I found is that there’s a simple solution for curing the ‘whatevers.’ So, if someone says ‘whatever’ to you, I’ve discovered that effective leaders, effective people in their jobs, say, “Tell me what that means. Okay, I get that you said whatever. Tell me what that means. Does that mean you don’t care? Does that mean you want me to make the decision? Tell me what that means.” And the simple response to whatever of someone saying, “Tell me what that means,” is really helpful.

And then, on the other side, when people say, “Well, how do I stop saying whatever?” I found that leaders do a simple thing, and that is they are always clear about what their intentions are. So, the example that I’ve used that seems to resonate is if your intention is to lose weight, you make decisions about being on a diet. If your intent is to stay in shape, you decide to take the stairs, not the elevator. If you intend to stay married, you make decisions that will keep your marriage alive.

So, I know those are very simple and very simple kinds of examples but clarifying one’s intent is not as easy as it sounds. So, what I want people to do is think about what your intent is for a day, or for this job, or for this project, or “For my career.” What’s your intent? Because then the decisions are easy. If your intent is not clear, then the decisions are hard, are less easy, and you’re likely to say, “Whatever.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so it sounds like you’ve nicely segmented a few categories of what whatever can mean. Can you break those down for us?

Richard Moran
Yeah. Well, there’s lots of definitions for whatever. And it’s funny because as I talked to people about the book, the nuances of how they say it resonates like, “Whatever,” or, “Whatever,” and each one means a different thing. So, it usually means, “I don’t care,” you know, “Whatever, I don’t care.” But it could also mean, “You make the decision for me, and I’ll blame you later.”

It could also mean, “I’m helpless,” or it could be a dismissive term. Like, an example so often it’s used is, “Honey, what do you want for dinner?” “Whatever.” Well, that’s a dismissive way to avoid a decision. It can mean, “I hate you.” It can mean, “I’m going to fill this little space of air up with a useless word.” In the book, I found about 20 different definitions, and all of them are bad except for one.

And the one definition that works is, “Honey, I love you, and I’ll do whatever it takes to win back your affection.” But other than that, it’s not benign. It’s sort of a toxic word. Often, people have compared it to the F word. And the F word has a lot of meanings, too, but it can be benign, and whatever is not. It’s toxic, especially in the workplace where people are paid to make decisions. Everyone is paid to make decisions at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then tell me, if a small decision comes up, and we really are indifferent, what do you recommend we do or say?

Richard Moran
Pick one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Richard Moran
If you’re indifferent, then I can see someone saying, “Well, they’re both good, so I’ll take this one. I’ll pick this one.” How many times have you been in a restaurant or anywhere, and whatever projects an indifference, which usually projects…? Indifference is one thing, and that might be okay. But usually, the word projects a sense of you being a slacker, or you just being indifferent means lowering, “I don’t care.” And there’s a difference between indifferent and “I don’t care,” but it’s very slight.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, tell me, you’re right. It seems like this isn’t easy. You tell me, Richard, master radio person, if that’s the big idea, and we’ve already got it, where should we go?

Richard Moran
Well, Pete, I can tell you some stories about how I got onto the work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Richard Moran
So, it’s a classic case. I was in a big-time consulting firm, giving a presentation about…it was actually about operator centers, and people were going to lose their jobs depending on how the decision went. And as I relayed all the options, the CEO at the time said, he raised his hand and said, “Whatever.” And I said, “That’s not one of the options.”

So, I wanted him to pick one and then he wouldn’t. So, what he was really saying was, “You make the decision for me, Mr. Consultant, and I will blame you later,” which, of course, he did. And the word came to be people assume that teenage girls are ones that say this word. Remember the movie “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone, where she would raise her fingers in a W and everybody would go, “Whatever”? Well, that’s how it started, but it’s not teenage girls who say it alone. It’s everyone who says it.

Now, for some people, it could be a shrug of the shoulders, it could be raising your eyebrows or rolling your eyes, it could be the middle finger, it could be a lot of things. But every time you say that, it’s turning into a decision that you’re avoiding. And I’ve learned in the research also that the decisions that we don’t make are the ones that create regret in our lives.

So, when people say, “I should’ve gone to graduate school,” or, “I could’ve been a manager,” or, “I would’ve been more successful had I…” you know, the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve are all part of the whatever syndrome that you didn’t make the decision. And what the research again shows is that the decisions that we did not make are the ones that we regret.

So, think about that every time you’re not making a decision, you’re regretting it, and that’s not helpful. It’s not good. And it even affects our personal lives when we can, in our dealing with our partners, and our children, and our parents, the whatevers are just toxic where you should be intentional, and you should be trying to do something with your decisions, and not blowing them off. It’s as simple as that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, if we do have sort of a fear or an avoidance going on with decisions, how do you recommend we improve that mental space?

Richard Moran
Well, there is, I call it the FOBO, the fear of a better option, “I want to take the high school cheerleader to the prom but, in the meantime, I’ve got this other…” So, the better options usually don’t appear, and so make a decision based on what you know. There’s also, and I love this rule, it comes out of Bain, the consulting firm, that they call it the two-minute rule.

And that is, whether you’re an organization or an individual, the decision that you make, are likely to make in the first two minutes of being faced with it, is probably the same decision that you’ll make if you suffer over it for a week. So, make the decision quickly, in that way, if it’s not the right decision, you can always go back and change it.

So, the two-minute rule is something that is really something that can affect our getting out of the whatever syndrome, so it’s a good rule. And I think it also applies to the regret. So, if you don’t make the decision quickly, and you’re probably going to have regrets about not making them later. And, Pete, there are so many books written about decision-making. There are hundreds of books that include pivot tables, and spreadsheets, and all kinds of flux capacitors and String theory, who knows what.

This is not complicated. What I want people to do is understand that the small decisions are the ones that matter, so please make them. I’m not suggesting that anybody go into a big decision, like a career move or marriage or something, and treat it like it. Those are not small decisions, and require all the analyses and thoughtfulness that they should. I’m just talking about the small decisions and how important they are. As simple as that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we have the small decision, and we have any number of reasons we don’t care to make it, we want to blame someone else. We are open to any number of things. We’re a little bit scared of the implications. Walk us through, we got two minutes to make a small decision. What do you recommend we do to make a small decision greatly in two minutes?

Richard Moran
Well, a lot of people say, “I’m just going to use my gut,” which is fine. Gut is fine. Everybody points to Steve Jobs as he always made gut decisions. Well, gut decisions are fine if your gut is informed. Steve Jobs could make gut decisions because he had years of product design and understanding what worked. So, your gut decision in the first two minutes could be the right way to go if your gut is informed.

If it’s not, then you need to do simple things like, as I said earlier, just make a list of pros and cons, make a list of “If I do this…” Do an algorithm, “If I do this, then this will happen. If I don’t do this, then this will happen.” And we’re constantly doing that in our head anyway, so use those simple techniques that have seen to work over time.

What I find is that people, when they don’t make these small decisions, they pile up. Email is the best way. Think about email. Every morning, we all have hundreds of emails. What do we do the first thing? We delete the ones that are easy. We delete, delete, delete. So, out of the hundred emails, there’s 50 left. Ten of them are hard, and those are the ones that we might not make decisions about.

We wait until later in the week, and on Friday, those 10 decisions are now 50 decisions that are not momentous but that’s what causes decision fatigue. We all have decision fatigue right now about what to wear, what to watch. So, it’s a good way to avoid decision fatigue is just by making the decisions when you’re faced with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s interesting because I had conceptualized decision fatigue as a consequence of making too many decisions, it’s like, “Oh, I’m so fatigued from doing pushups or running. I’ve done so many pushups or ran so many miles, I’m now fatigued.” But you posit that, “No, it comes from not making the decisions.”

Richard Moran
It is, yeah. You’re faced with it and you don’t make it, so, all of a sudden, you’re burdened, you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders because you’ve postponed all these decisions, and now you have to make them all, and they’re harder if you wait. So, I think both can work, both are possible, but what I’m suggesting is that when you don’t make a decision, they pile up, and then you get sick and tired of making them all.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, and it’s certainly more overwhelming and unpleasant to face an inbox in the hundreds than in the dozens.

Richard Moran
Yeah, and they do, as we all know, they do pile up. And the hardest ones are usually the ones that we don’t make decisions about.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed.

Richard Moran
So, that’s what I’m trying to get your listeners to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve got a turn-of-a-phrase, “action follows intent.” How does that apply here?

Richard Moran
Well, it’s something when I talked about earlier about clarifying your intentions, and then your actions and your decisions are much easier to make. And when people think about intentions, especially in the corporate world, they think about visions and missions, or the intent of Google is to provide information to the world in a good way, and do no harm.

But what I’ve discovered is that people have their own intentions. And one of the guys I interviewed for the book, who was so fascinating, his name is John Bullock, he’s in Kansas City, or he’s in Lawrence, Kansas, and he is both an episcopal priest and a very successful lawyer. And he has a personal mission statement which just clarifies his intent, and it’s to help people.

So, every day, his intention is to help people, and then he makes all his decisions along those lines. And I’m not doing him justice, but it was a beautiful thing when I heard it, because he made all of his small decisions every day because his intentions were so clear. And it works. For him it really worked. So, that’s what the actions follow intent is all about, and make the intentions clear.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have any other perspectives on the self-awareness, the clarity of intention, or articulations, examples of that, that just make a world of difference in aiding our decision-making?

Richard Moran
Yeah. Well, the other thing I learned, besides actions follow intent, is that good decision-makers are self-aware, that they know in their heart of hearts what they really want to do and they make decisions accordingly. And I think good leaders are self-aware, and good leaders are able to make decisions. So, an example I use, I was a CEO of a company, and I knew that I am not good at numbers, I’m not good at details. Believe it or not, there are CEOs who are not good at those two things.

But I am good at sales, I am good at communicating, I am good at building relationships. So, I’m self-aware enough that I could make decisions so that I surrounded myself with people who are good at numbers and good at details, and it just made the organization way better the fact that I was self-aware enough that I could make decisions like that. And as I talked to leaders around the world, they’re all self-aware. And that self-awareness allows them to make better decisions. Simple, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s say we do have some clarity of self-awareness and intention, and we are inspired, we are not saying whatever, we’re taking on decisions, we’re making them in two minutes frequently or less, are there any traps or pitfalls within this world that you’d highlight for us to avoid?

Richard Moran
Yeah, one is that you make decisions based on what you think other people want, and that’s an easy pitfall. Another is that you don’t take risks with your decision-making. And a lot of the good leaders made risky decisions. Let me put it another way, they were not afraid to make what they would term as a risky decision.

Another pitfall is that lots of times we all have to make decisions when all of the options are bad. And I see that happening right now in the tech world. Or, leaders are making decisions based on, “Should we run out of money or should we lay off people?” Both of those options are bad, but you still have to make one. Delaying that decision is going to mean bad things, both bad things are going to happen.

So, I see people really delaying decisions and not making them when the options that are available are all bad. So, put it all together, and it just adds up to success. Personal satisfaction, career success is all based on the ability to make all those small decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, Richard, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Richard Moran
No, I think, as you said, Pete, the whole book is in the title, Never Say Whatever, and I think we covered it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Richard Moran
Yeah, I have it right here. Let me find it. And it’s by one of my favorite authors, it’s by Arthur Miller. Well, I have two quotes, actually. The Arthur Miller quote is, “One can’t forever stand on the shore. At some point, filled with indecisions, skepticism, reservation, and doubt, you either jump in or you concede that life is forever elsewhere.” And the other quote I like, it’s by anonymous, is, “I used to be indecisive. Now, I’m not so sure.” So, don’t be indecisive. But I like those two.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Richard Moran
Well, I love the Cornell research that talked about the small decisions that we make every day, and that’s one that discovered how many decisions we make, and brought it down to lunch. So, it’s fascinating when you think about it. And there’s also a lot of research that I found interesting in doing the book, and that is how many big decisions people identify in their life.

And how many times have we heard somebody say, “Oh, I’m faced with so many big decisions”? Well, the truth is, and this is out of a lot of research also, that there’s 10 or 12 big decisions in our lives, 10 or 12. And that includes things like your career, where you live, who you marry, your faith, what about children. It even gets down to whether or not to have a dog.

So, people think that there’s all these big decisions hitting them all the time. There’s not. Those big decisions are few and far between because they’re so few. It’s all those small decisions every day that are what are so important.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Richard Moran
My favorite book is a recent book, and it’s out now by an Irish author, and it’s called This Is Happiness and it’s a coming-of-age story. I bet a lot of your readers don’t know about it, or listeners don’t know about it, but it’s just lyrical about what’s important and about how we all transform from young into a mature person. It’s a great book, This Is Happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Richard Moran
My favorite tool is a hammer. In fact, I love hammers so much I have a large collection of hammers. Because how frustrating is it when you have something that needs to be hammered and you can’t find one? So, I have a lot of hammers. That, of course, implies that I treat everything like a nail, and that might be true. When the only tool you have is a hammer, you do tend to treat everything like a nail.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Richard Moran
My favorite habit is getting up early, and greeting the day with a smile, and say, “It’s going to be a great day, and my intentions today are to make it so.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Richard Moran
Yeah. Well, what I’ve discovered is that, as I’ve talked about the book and the word whatever, I’ve described as an earwig. I’ve put a bug in their ear, and now I’ve ruined their day because every time they say the word, they shiver because they know they shouldn’t be saying it. So, I’m putting earwigs in everybody’s ears, that don’t say whatever. And instead of it’ll be annoying, now it’ll be like the theme song from “Cars” or “Kids” or something. It’ll really be annoying.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Richard Moran
I have a website, it’s RichardMoran.com, and I do look at it, and I do respond. And I’m active on LinkedIn. Yeah, I’m very responsive. I am really trying to help people be more successful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Richard Moran
Well, it’s easy. This is an easy one about stop saying whatever. Make those small decisions. That’s my challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Richard, it’s been a treat. I wish you much luck in all your decisions.

Richard Moran
Thanks, Pete. It’s been great to talk to you.

824: Thriving amid Information Overload with Ross Dawson

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Ross Dawson shares battle-tested strategies for excelling in a world of massive information.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five information superpowers 
  2. How to consume information optimally
  3. How to discern the good sources from the bad ones 

About Ross

Futurist and author Ross Dawson has focused for over 25 years on the challenge and opportunity of how to thrive on unlimited information. The initial offering of his first company Advanced Human Technologies was helping financial market leaders and company directors develop their information capabilities. He shared early insights in his prescient 1997 article Information Overload: Problem or Opportunity? 

For over two decades Ross has applied and consistently refined his frameworks for enhancing information capabilities. As a leading futurist, keynote speaker and advisor he has travelled around the globe helping business and government leaders envisage and create positive futures for an immense array of industries and issues.  

Resources Mentioned

Ross Dawson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ross, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Ross Dawson
Wonderful to be talking to you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom about Thriving on Overload: The 5 Powers for Success in a World of Exponential Information. But, first, could you tell us a little bit about your knack for musical instruments? I understand you can play many. How did you learn how to play them all? Any tips and tricks, or any special performances that really leap to mind?

Ross Dawson
Well, it’s just at the age of 14, I said, “I just want to play guitar,” so I gave a little money to my dad, he bought me a guitar, and I actually, at the time, had some cassette tapes and a little book, and I taught myself. So, I teach myself just about everything, and so it was the guitar included, and then I sort of worked out, “Okay, well, that note on the guitar, is that a note on the piano?” And so, I looked out on how to play the piano, and learned a couple of other instruments. It’s all self-taught.

Sometimes it’s useful. Often, it’s useful to have teachers but I think there’s so much we can discover ourselves in the way we find our own ways of doing things if we do them ourselves. And that’s certainly been my musical journey where I just do what I want to do, and I enjoy it, and not necessarily following what anyone’s suggesting to me I should be doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Fun. Okay. And were you in a band at some points along the way or any noteworthy performances?

Ross Dawson
Yes, just lots of bands along the way, mostly pretty early on when I was at school, when I was university, and then after that, yeah, a number of other bands, and playing guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion. And I’ve been certainly keen to get back to it for quite a while, and it’s a bit harder when you have kids and you got busy and so on, but working on some ways to use technology plus instruments to be able to create my own one solo show live.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fun.

Ross Dawson
So, working it too.

Pete Mockaitis
Looking forward to it.

Ross Dawson
So, see you if I actually get on stage at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. Well, one final question on the music scene, did any of your bands have funny names? Band names are our favorite.

Ross Dawson
Nothing that I…well, funny, I don’t even remember them all. Platinum Blues was one of the sorts of bigger bands that I was in. So, this idea of those blues but we were sort of gilding it. So, that was, I suppose, one of the steps along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, Ross, now tell us a little bit about Thriving on Overload. Any particularly surprising or counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made along the way on this stuff?

Ross Dawson
Well, I suppose, in a way, Thriving on Overload is counterintuitive in the sense we live in a world of overload, but we can thrive on it. I think this is a fundamental belief that our brains are not adapted to the world that we have created. Incredible inventors that have made, among other things, a profusion of information, and screens, and always on, and this is something is what we have brought ourselves, but it is not something that our brains are ready for, so we are overloaded. We are overwhelmed. It’s just natural. It’s impossible not to be, in a way.

But I do believe that it is possible to thrive on that. And this is, I suppose, a way where we can become, you know, learn, change how we do things, what we do, our attitudes, practices. And that, in a way, means we can transcend who we have been to be more adapted to the world that we live in. So, this is a journey, we can learn things, we can progress, and so that’s something which is not obvious but I think this really is our most important capability that we need to develop.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then can you paint a picture for, if there’s any cool studies or data or research, which really reveals just what’s possible in the realm of thriving on overload? Like, what’s the typical level of thriving/floundering in the midst of overload versus what can really be possible if you master this stuff?

Ross Dawson
There’s a whole set of capabilities to develop the capability to thrive. So, the subtitle of the book is, The 5 Powers for Success in a World of Exponential Information. Those five powers are purpose, framing, filtering, attention, and synthesis. So, we need to be able to dig into each of those and how all those fit together. But if we want to distill this, I suppose, to research and some data and some one frame, one piece of research or sort of now what is compounded research is into multitasking.

And some people think they’re good at multitasking, and the reality is that now more recent studies on what’s actually happening in our brain shows that when we think we are multitasking, as we think we are doing two things at the same time, our brain is actually switching from one thing to another thing, and then back to the other thing, and then back to the other thing.

Now, if we’re simply listening to a podcast while we’re cooking dinner, that’s probably achievable. That’s not too hard to go back and forth. But if we’re doing something which is contemplatively taxing, and we’re then checking our email, or trying to watch TV, or whatever it is, it’s simply not functional. So, studies have shown, in fact, that those people who think they are good at multitasking actually underperform those people that don’t think they’re good at multitasking because they’re trying to do something which is literally not possible. Our brains cannot multitask.

So, this is where we are put in a world with so much wonderful things going on, and we try to pay attention to multiple things at the same, and it’s simply, yes, you can do it by switching your attention, but you will perform less than you’ve done before. Now, taking research at the other end of the spectrum, those who are trained in the single practice which takes our attention the most sustained is meditation, which is simply the practice of keeping our attention sustained on one thing for a period of time where we can continue to be on attention on one thing for a period of time.

And you don’t need to be a meditator to get there. There are other ways to be able to get there, and there are people who switch everything off, and for three hours at a time, aside from getting up and stretching and having a drink of water or whatever they need along the way, will be focused on task for a period of hours.

And the reality is that it’s only a very small proportion of people that are able to and do take that time and capacity, develop that three hours of attention, spend it on one thing in which they can achieve incredible things. Whereas, the vast majority of people, it’s literally, their attention is not on one thing for more than literally a few minutes at a time, at best, because they’re just strayed by thoughts or notifications or alerts.

And those are the two poles. One is eternal distraction, eternal attention watering all over the place where we can never achieve that much. And those people that demonstratively can keep their attention on one thing achieve extraordinary amounts of things in quite limited periods of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that does sound exciting in terms of what’s possible. Now, to zero in on that three-hour figure, I’m thinking about ultradian rhythms and just what’s possible for the human organism. Is that three hour like three hours but with, like, a couple minute bathroom and beverage break? Or, how does that unfold, that three hours?

Ross Dawson
Yes. So, to your point, the basic rest activity cycle is generally understood to be 90 minutes, where our brains do go through cycles of, amongst other things, ability to be more focused and less focused. And so, we do need to take that into account, and our brains are different, we could be more or less tired, those all sorts of different factors, but 90 minutes is a reasonable guideline.

So, three hours is something where it is very possible for anybody to spend three hours in reasonable degrees of focus but that’s probably more than as much as most people would want to achieve in a day. The way I put it is that everybody should, for at least 90 minutes, at least once a week, have a complete focus time.

And that’s something which, again, is already challenging for most people. Most people don’t take 90 minutes out where there’s no distractions, nothing interrupting them, where there’s only one thing, they can’t escape from it, and they do get on with it. It actually takes practice to get into that but you can still achieve a lot as you get to that 90-minute period and I think that’s a good starting point for most people.

If you’re used to just being distracted and checking your email all the time, whatever it may be, make sure you have a time of 90 minutes, no distractions, no notifications, nobody’s going to interrupt you unless it’s the end of the world, and you have one task to get on with, and you just do that for 90 minutes, and do that once a week. That’s just incredibly starting point. And from then, you can start to build it.

So, in terms of some of those cycles, one of the most famous is the Pomodoro technique, which you spend 25 minutes of focus, five minutes break, 25 minutes of focus, and five minutes break, sometimes a bit longer break, and then you do that three times, which basically takes you to 90 minutes, have a little bit of a longer break, and then you do that three times again, 25 minutes plus five minutes break. And that works for a lot of people.

Personally, I think that the more flexible approach, as in if you feel you’re in the groove, then why suffer 25 minutes, or if you just feel a little bit of a break first that’s earlier. So, we can let our…some people work to that structure, having a time run, 25 minutes and five minutes break, that works for them perfectly. Other people, I feel that 25 minutes, often I’ll just want to keep on going, I won’t want to stop. But when I’m ready, I can take a stop, wander outside, pick up the guitar, whatever it may be.

So, I think if we get into this practice, what we do need is find our practices, find our routines that work for us, find what times of day is the best time to do this, but just making sure that you are starting with at least carving out some time, which is this what I call deep-dive time. That’s when you can achieve an incredible amount in very limited periods.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then so we’ve got a sense for what that means with regard to minutes of focused attention, which is handy. Could you share a cool story if there’s a particular case or poster child, if you will, that really illustrates what that can mean in practice for one’s results, career, productivity when they get there?

Ross Dawson
I think the reference point for, certainly for me, and I think for a lot of people is writing books. There’s pretty significant proportion of people say they aspire to write a book at some time in their life. You are never going to get there unless you have the focused time and you’ve blocked that out. So, that’s where anybody can say, “All right, I would love to write a book.” It could be a fiction book, it could be a memoir, it could be about this big idea you’ve have, it could be to show you’re the expert in your field, whatever it may be.

And, yes, when I wrote my first book, before I wrote my first book, I said, “I think society overweighs the value of a book. Being an author is an incredibly wonderful thing and society gives a lot of value to authors and, yeah, it’s a good thing but it’s…so I’ll play that game, if that’s what it is.” I have to say that after writing the first book, I say, “Well, actually, probably authors do deserve some respect.”

But it is something where you do need to carve out the time. So, anybody who writes a book will have an incredible accomplishment, it doesn’t matter how many books or copies are sold, you will have achieved something of value, something to point to, one which will advance your reputation, your career, your abilities, you’ll learn a lot through doing that. So, I think it is a wonderful endeavor, and that is something which can only be done with focused time that is blocked out, it’s simply for that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it is, it’s kind of binary, on or off. Certain accomplishments such as writing a book are just impossible without the ability to have that focus for an extended period of time that is 90-ish minutes or thereabouts or even greater. And then I think in this age where there are different media and creations, we could maybe think of the book as a proxy or a representative for any sort of, I don’t know, magnum opus or great work of sorts that they’re not cranked out in 15-minute break in between Instagram sessions.

Ross Dawson
Exactly. To your point, if you want to be a YouTuber, today the bar for YouTube videos is pretty high, as in it’s a very high quality. If you want to do X videos on a particular topic and show you’re the expert, you’ve got to be pretty good because there’s a lot of other really good people out there. And, again, that’s not going to happen by itself.

You’ve got to say, “All right. Okay, I’ve got to work out. All right, what’s my topic? What’s my script? Where do I get my video assets? What are the overlays that’s going to be?” This is, again, going to take focused time. It’s not going to happen just by filling in in between other things. And what you can do, for example, in 90 minutes of focus will far exceed what you can do just trying to do bits and pieces while you’re interrupted along the way.

So, this is a way of amplifying your productivity, but it’s also a way of just being more…creating more value from the world we have. And I think that this fundamental equation for almost all of us are input as information. It’s what we read. It’s what we experience. It’s our conversations. It’s what we see in the world. It’s what we live, what we notice. It’s what we make of the world. It’s our knowledge. It’s our understanding.

And then it’s sharing it. it’s creating value with that. It’s building a startup. It’s applying it to our work. It’s making better decisions. It’s seeing opportunities. It’s creating YouTube videos. It’s creating blogposts. It’s creating articles. It’s having more intelligent conversations that add value to more people. It’s the input and the output. And both of those require this structure to how it is we bring our information together and building knowledge. And the structure in our work lives and to how it is we create something of value from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you mentioned these five powers: the purpose, the framing, the filtering, the attention, the synthesis. Can you expand upon those in terms of, I guess, a definition, and maybe some top do’s and don’ts for really developing each of these powers?

Ross Dawson
Certainly. So, just at a high level first. Purpose is simply knowing why. Why is it that you deal with information, do what you do in the first place? Second is framing, which is being able to literally build frameworks for your knowledge, for your understanding, for your information so you can piece together how they are connected. Filtering is being able to look at the information source that you have, and to be able to discern what it is that serves you, that serves your purpose, and what it is that doesn’t, and being able to make sure that you leave the ones, the information, that’s not useful.

The fourth mode is attention. So, we’ve been talking about this idea of deep diving. We have extended focus for a period of time, but that’s not the only attention mode. For example, we might have scanning, we might say, “All right, there’s a period of time when I’m just going to look at all my information sources. I’m going to stop and then move on to then perhaps reading and taking that in,” so there’s different attention modes.

And the fifth one is synthesis. And this is, in a way, pulling everything together so that it’s rather than just be lots of information, we can make a body of knowledge, we can understand the system, we can be able to have the foundations to build something of value. So, these are the five powers, and we can sort of perhaps flip over the year digging into specific questions. I can obviously go into greater depth on any of those, but I think laying those out as the five is critically important.

So, where would you like me to dig into from those topics?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’d like to hear what sorts of practices enable us to develop and deploy each of these powers well versus what is the antithesis, the kryptonite, of each of these powers that are to be avoided?

Ross Dawson
So, we have to start with purpose, and the way I frame that in my book Thriving on Overload is around our relationship to information. So, we have a relationship with money, we have a relationship with food. In the same way, we have a relationship with information, there’s a lot of parallels with our relationship with food and relationship with information where we can have a not very positive relationship with food where we snack on chocolate all the time or eat when we’re stressed and so on.

And, in fact, there are some quite similar habits, sometimes, which people have with information. But we can also have a positive relationship with food, where we eat healthy food, and we feel that is sustains us, and we don’t have too much food when it’s not something that we truly want. So, with information, the same thing, where we can have a positive relationship with information, which is formed by going to what actually is good for us, which makes us feel happier, which inspires us, which informs our ability to achieve what we want to achieve, and is something which we’re not always indulging and snacking in all the time.

And so, I propose this idea of intermittent fasting information diet. So, some people, for food, they say, “All right, I’m not going to eat for a period of time. Come back and eat a meal, whatever, but I won’t eat anything at all in between.” And I think that’s a very valuable approach with information as well. We can say, “Well, I’m not going to check social media, I’m not going to check the news headlines, I’m not going to indulge in those things because, for a period of time, there are things that I want to do. I want to play with my children. I want to read something which is important, which I’ve decided is something I want to spend my time on, and I want to be able to write my book,” whatever it may be. So, we can vary those things.

But this all comes from purpose in the sense of understanding what it is we want to achieve, what it is we think is worthwhile, and, as a result, being able to determine the information that’s not useful. And the antithesis of that is simply not knowing, “Oh, that’s interesting. A bit about the celebrity news,” or, “Oh, see this horrible thing about what’s happening in politics, and spend some time looking at that.” And none of that serves us because we’re not clear on our purpose.

And so, having that purpose is an absolutely fundamental starting point to simply being able to prosper and know what it is that is valuable to us in a world which is often overwhelming.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ross, I’d love to expand on that notion of purpose in the specific context of reading the news. Sometimes, when people read the news, they say things like, “I want to be informed.” And that strikes me as a little bit vague as far as a purpose or a goal goes because, in a way, there is infinite news one might be informed or not informed about. And so, it seems kind of thin in terms of, “My goal in reading this news is to be informed.”

And sometimes I wonder, maybe just because I don’t like reading a lot of news. I guess my purpose, the way I go into this is say, “I’m going to spend approximately 40 minutes scanning the headlines of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal so that I have a general clue as to the happenings in the world so I am able to converse with people,” as opposed to going, “Huh? What?” And so, that’s my purpose when I’m going to the news.

And it doesn’t take that long, and I find that if I spend too much time on the news, one, I’m pathologically curious, which is great for a podcast interviewer but not so great for a news consumer because, like, two hours later, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve read all about the chess cheating scandal, but how does that serve me?” I found it very interesting and I know I can comment a lot about it, Ross, if you have any questions, but it’s not really enriched me much.

So, can you share with us some example articulations of what might be some rich, useful, best-in-class articulations of purpose when it comes to approaching information of the news?

Ross Dawson
So, a couple of points just with what you’re saying. So, I think that’s wonderful in the sense of, first of all, you mentioned you take 40 minutes, and that’s exactly what I say. We need to have a period of time when we say this, “I’m going to scan the headlines and no more.” But news is one category, in a way, of information. It’s what I framed in the book as society, in a sense of, “What do we want to know about what is happening in society at large?”

And we said, the purpose is, “What is our purpose for it? Why is it that I read the news?” And you articulated, again, a quite clear purpose, so you can have intelligent, or at least, somewhat formed conversation with people, and you only need the headline for that to be able to not know…or, to actually know what’s happening as opposed to having the idea of what’s happening. And that’s entirely valid.

So, some of the reasons why you would want to go in the news is to be an informed voter. Now, that’s something which you probably can catch up with just before you need to vote. You don’t need to be constantly…

Pete Mockaitis
The day before, binge.

Ross Dawson
You don’t need to be constantly reading the news all year round in order to be able to vote, whatever it is that you vote. But that’s one valid reason. Another is to be able to have intelligent conversations with your friends you want to have conversations with. Another is to be aware of the things which are changing in your community, and so that gives you a geographic for this, “All right, I would like to see news about my local community.”

Another is to say, “Are there any things which are going to impact my children’s opportunities?” I might say, “All right, if they’re at a particular age, I might be looking at developments in university or college admissions,” or something like that. So, these are things which you would start to be focused. But this comes back to the domains for our relationship with information.

And one of the first ones, one of the most important ones is expertise. We do have to choose our area of expertise to be clear, “This is what I am an expert in, or I’m aspiring to be an expert in, or something which I think I’ll be useful to be an expert in in a few years from now,” and being quite clear around that, writing that down, “I will become…” or, “I am an expert in a particular area,” quite clearly defined, and that gives you clarity on what information, what sources you need to take in, what you need to distill so that you can become that expert. If you’re just skimming across the surface, you’ll never be an expert in anything, and that is not very useful in the current state of the world today.

Another is in wellbeing, “So, what is it that I’d want to know about my own wellbeing, well, the wellbeing of my loved ones? What is it that’s going to help me to have a better diet to be able to help support the conditions of people in my family?” So, it’s perfectly valid to have some passions. All right, so sports teams or there’s nothing wrong with celebrity news as long as you don’t let that expand to take over all of your news.

So, I think there’s different categories around helping you decide what your purpose is. There is information you can look for. You can look in your expertise, your ventures, whether that’s a startup, or whether it’s a community garden, whatever it is, in terms of your wellbeing, in terms of your relationship to society. These are all things that we can think through in order to become effective.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Ross, what you really are crystallizing for me is, and this is so helpful. Thank you. Hopefully, it’s good for listeners too. But I find, internally, I have a response of frustration or irritability when I see a news headline or blog article, or whatever, it says, for example, “Topic: What you need to know.” And I’m thinking, “There is no possible way you know what I need to know because our contexts are so wildly different.”

Like, the person running the political campaign for this politician needs to know way more and way different things than someone who may or may not vote for that person months down the road, or someone who’s managing the budget or employees in that industry. I guess maybe because I’m a content creator myself, I’m prickly or snobbish about the quality, but it’s like, “What you need to know, there’s no way one article can provide what everyone needs to know because everyone’s contexts are so different and their purposes that they establish are so different.”

So, Ross, thank you for clarifying what was simmering under the surface for me. And is it fair to say you’re going to have a hard time writing a piece of content that’s what you need to know for all peoples in one fell swoop?

Ross Dawson
Well, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I just wanted to make sure. Thank you, Ross.

Ross Dawson
But what it comes back to is saying we need to know it is health, and we don’t necessarily know that. So, what I described is we need to develop our own personal information plan. So, to complement the book, I’ve created some software or course where it takes people through that journey of identifying their purpose, and their expertise, and their areas, and their sources, and how they can use that, and the times they’re going to use that and do that.

You don’t need the book or the course, though they’re obviously designed to be as useful as possible. But we all need to decide, “What is my own personal information plan? What is it that matters to me? What time am I going to spend on that? What time am I not going to spend on the things that don’t matter? How am I going to structure my day? How am I going to structure my time? How am I going to spend time to be focused? How am I going to make space to synthesize this and pull this together?”

Information is the core and the value, I would suggest, of almost all of your listeners, and it’s something which most people haven’t spent the time to think about, is to, “How can I do this better?” And we can all build our own personal information plan, and that starts with this idea of, “Why? What’s important to me?” And from that, a lot of that starts to flow into, “What are the structures and the habits and the practice which will enable you to achieve what you want in your life, and be happier because you’re not drowning in the things that somebody else thinks is important to you but actually isn’t?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Well, you got me thinking about email outsourcing, but we’ll move on in terms of thinking about what’s important to me, and what’s not important to me, and what’s important to other people that land in your inbox, and how can you navigate that effectively, whether it’s software or helpers or different levels of support. So, we’ll just let that percolate in people’s heads for now. But let’s hear about framing next.

Ross Dawson
So, framing is building a framework. So, we got lots of information, but that’s all just bits of information. It only becomes knowledge and understanding when we connect that, when we say, “What are the relationships between these ideas? How does this fit together? What are the foundations of my understanding of this area of expertise that I’m developing?”

So, there’s a number of tools, a lot of visual tools that we can use. So, we can use things like mind maps. We can use things like concept maps. We can just sort of just draw things on a piece of paper and draw lines with them. And there’s now more and more software which helps people to not just note, “Ah, that was interesting. Oh, that’s interesting. Oh, that’s a really good study there,” and then to actually make links between them.

So, there’s a whole new generation of software tools, including around research and obsidian, but also other ways of just using simple software tools, such as note taking tools and so on, that enables us to practice this way of framing by drawing connections in, building a lattice of knowledge which is the foundation for how it is we can become an expert, to understand things, to be able to know what the reference points and the researchers that supports what are valid ways of thinking about these spaces.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you paint a picture or give us an example of what a frame looks and sounds like?

Ross Dawson
So, on RossDawson.com/frameworks, I’ve created a whole set of what I find is useful frameworks about the future, but any mind map. I think mind maps are one of the most people are most familiar with, where you have one idea and you lay that out as a kind of visual representation of some of the ideas and how those fit.

So, one of the good things about a mind map is it combines a hierarchy. You have a central idea and then subsidiary ideas, and then subsidiary ideas, but also being able to lay that out to be able to show some of the potential relationships between these ideas. So, these are forms of structuring, and it’s different for every person as to what is most useful for them and the way in which they think.

And some people like putting things in a linear document but we’re trying to move beyond linear. So, how do we draw connections between things? And I think, often, just being able to sketch things on pieces of paper, write down ideas on a piece of paper, draw lines between them as to what the relationships between those ideas are, and then you can start to literally build a picture of an area of expertise, of what it is you’re looking at.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now let’s hear about filtering.

Ross Dawson
The filtering requires, first of all, understanding what information sources you’re going to go to. And this is not just going directly immediately. You might be using feeds, or you might be using aggregators, or you might be using different tools, but it’s building more and more this discernment of what it is that serves your purpose. So, clarity on your purpose, being able to guide that, and what it is that you need to discard.

And more and more, this is around being able to make sure that we are not succumbing to our confirmation bias, that we are not just looking for things that affirm what we want to know, but we are looking for things that complement our knowledge. So, one of the, I suppose, ways of shifting our thinking is to say, rather than being certain about things, whether that be in politics, or society, or in our area of expertise, is to start attributing probabilities to things.

So, we can say, “I think it is 90% likely, or 60% likely, that this is the case,” and then you can start to look for evidence that either increases or decreases the probability of you being right. So, there is a study of super forecasters, these people that are very good at predicting the future, and they have this implicit way of thinking about the future, or thinking about what it is they know as a probability. They’re never 100% certain on anything, because you can’t be.

But what you can do is to say, “I believe this. This is what I understand. This is the probability I attribute to that,” and then being able to look for evidence that will make your assessment that more accurate. So, this is a way of being able to actually go to the most surprising information to you and assessing that, and whether that’s valid so that you can then start to incorporate that into your mental models, or your ways of thinking, or your hypothesis around, for example, what will be a successful business.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, I’m curious, when it comes to arriving at what sources you think are winners versus ought not to be delved into, are there any core criteria or questions that really helps separate the wheat from the chaff?

Ross Dawson
So, it’s context. So, I frame this as, first of all, thinking about yourself. So, what is it that you want to be true, for example? Or, what is it you’re looking for? Or, what are your ideas already around this? You need to be thinking about yourself first, in a way. Second is the source, and you say, “Well, is this generally reputable, to generally other people consider this to be worthy? How much research did they do?” And being able to assess.

And no source is completely accurate. The most credentialed scientific journal in the world, Nature, has had 50 retractions in the last 10 years of things where they published it, and then they say, “Oh, actually, no, that’s not right. Ignore it.” And so, we can go to the most reputable sources and then we can’t actually be completely confident. There are certain sources where you can say, “Well, okay, there’s not much credibility,” but it doesn’t mean that any source is completely off the table either, but we need to have an assessment of that.

And the third one is actually looking at any specific piece of content, one of the most important things to do is to go back to its sources in whatever way to be able to corroborate that, “Is there anything which would suggest this was also true?” And it’s incredible, when you skirt into practice of going back to original sources for what it is you read, how often it is distorted or, in some case, a complete misrepresentation of what it is it says to be reporting on, or simply just misleading.

So, the single best practice is not to take anything at face value, but to then go back, and, of course, only if it’s important enough to you to warrant that, to go back and to do your research, to delve back, to say, “Well, let’s see, where does this actually come from and how do I assess that?” So, I think this requires a curiosity.

Yes, you are trying to say, “Yes, this is a more likely to be true source, more or less likely to be a true source,” concentrate on the ones which are more reputable, of course, but also to take everything with a grain of salt, and to dig back and to build your own reference point just what you believe is true, and be able to find the evidence you can to support that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, could you give us any top do’s and don’ts in the zones of attention and synthesis?

Ross Dawson
So, attention, there are six modes that I identify in my book. So, the first, which we discussed, is scanning, so just looking across existing news sources. Second is assimilating, where we assimilate, and we say, “This is worth spending time on.” It could be a book, it could be an article which you identified, and just rather than being distracted, you spend time and you take that into your body of knowledge.

Seeking for knowledge, explore, and I think it’s important to spend time where you’re deliberately trying to find things you would never normally find. Deep diving, which we discussed from the outset, that way of just spending focused time for a period of time. And the critical one, and one of the most ignored and most important really of the attention modes, is regenerating, which means stop doing, taking in information. And going out in nature is the most powerful way to do that.

It doesn’t need to be a forest. It can be a single tree in a park or whatever it may be. Just getting out in nature is a form of regenerating our attention. So, the best practices, the time box, let’s say, “This is the time I’ll spend on this. This is when I’ll do it. This is the time I’ll spend on that, and I’ll do that.” And to make sure that you’re spending your time deep diving each day, you’re spending time scanning each day, you’re spending your time assimilating each day, and you are spending time regenerating each day.

And the don’t is simply just to go from one thing to another all the time, just continually distracted by the next thing, “Oh, I should be doing that. Oh, I should be doing that. Oh, I might do this instead,” and you never get to a fraction of what you could achieve otherwise.

In terms of synthesis, it really is about getting to a state of mind where you can pull all of the things which you’re exposed to into understanding, into knowledge, into something where you have insights that other people don’t. And that requires this going between the intense focus but also the breath, giving your mind the space in which it can piece together all of the different elements in order to build that understanding.

So, in my book, I describe some of the different ways in which we can get to the state of mind where insights happen, where we can synthesize the ideas, where can come up with insights. And I suppose the don’t on that thing is simply just to burrow down all the time and not give our mind the space which it needs to be able to do what humans are incredibly good at, uniquely good at, is to pull together, connect the dots, and make sense of the whole.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Ross, tell me, any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ross Dawson
Simply that this is the foundational capability for success today, is this ability to deal well with information and create value with it. And I think that anybody, whether you’re a beginner, as it were, or an expert, everyone can get better on it. And I just believe that we can all and should be spending time trying to get better at our information capabilities because that’s what will drive our abilities to create what it is we want in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ross Dawson
So, one of my very favorite quotes is from James Carse, and it is “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” And it’s from his book Finite and Infinite Games, and that’s so many things. People are so much stuck in their boundaries, and so we need to play with the boundaries of our life and work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Ross Dawson
One of my favorite bits of research which studied normal people and then meditators, and they put on a metronome, and the metronome started ticking. And for normal people, the first tick, they had this strong brain response, and then, quickly, it went down and they just didn’t notice it anymore. The Zen meditators, the first tick, they noticed. The second tick, they noticed it, and they keep on noticing it. They are continually seeing the world afresh. They are not becoming habituated to it as almost all of us do. So, this shows that we can continue to see the world afresh even as it stays the same, or seems to stay the same.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Ross Dawson
One of my favorite books I’ve read recently is The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, pointing to the infinite potential we have as the human race.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Ross Dawson
Favorite tool, well, just in terms of information access, Techmeme is just one way, one place where I can just quickly get on top of all of the important technology news of the day. So, just a quick, easy, and simple tool, and makes me informed in that area.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a habit?

Ross Dawson
The habit which I am developing more and more is when I feel like a break, is doing one of two things. One is picking up my guitar, and the other is rather than browsing through things, is turning to a book just to read for a few minutes, and then turn back.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they Kindle book highlight it and retweet it and such?

Ross Dawson
Simply that we have to believe that we can create a better future in order to be able to create it. And I think a lot of people are very negative today. There’s a lot of negative news reported, people getting some poor states of mind, but I think the first thing is we need to believe that a better future is possible. And it doesn’t matter whether we think that’s highly probable or not very probable at all, as long as we believe it is possible to create a better future, that gives us the foundation to say, “Well, what is it that I can do in order to be able to create that?”

So, I think that’s, in a way, the foundation of my work, and I think it’s a lot of what resonates with people is this starting with this potential, this belief that we can create something better to drive the action, which means that we can work towards that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ross Dawson
For my work, in general, RossDawson.com but for the book, ThrivingOnOverload.com. There’s a wealth of resources there, there’s free parts of the book, the exercises, the introduction, there’s the overload course, there’s a podcast, there’s a whole set of resources. So, ThrivingOnOverload.com is a wonderful place for those people who want to go further on this journey.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?